Restaurants that help out low-income households with free meals and provide a place for children to spend time — dubbed “children’s cafeterias” — have become crucial in Okinawa Prefecture as more people suffer due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madoka Yamada (left) gives out meals in bento boxes for free to a junior high school student at Mama Restaurant Hive House, a children's cafeteria in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture.

But those who operate the diners are stuck between a rock and a hard place, wanting to help out but also fearful of infection risks.

About 10% of them have stopped their activities, while about 20% have switched to offering bento boxes to go.

Okinawa Prefecture has the highest number of children’s diners per elementary school nationwide, thanks to local resident volunteers.

As of January, 44 out of 218 children’s diners in Okinawa had partially suspended their activities and switched to offering bento boxes, while 26 had stopped their activities entirely, according to the prefectural government. The figures are an improvement from last year, when 109 diners had stopped their activities entirely in April 2020 and 57 had in August, but with more than 10% still suspended, the impact of their absence continues to be felt.

A 38-year-old single mother expressed thanks recently when she and her son visited Mama Restaurant Hive House, a children’s cafeteria in Naha, to receive free meals in bento boxes for four, plus vegetables and snacks.

The restaurant stopped offering meals there at the end of March, and started providing bento boxes instead twice a week for free. The visit to the cafeteria was the mother’s fifth.

She works at a convenience store, but with her shifts reduced she now earns only about ¥80,000 per month after taxes, down 20% from before the pandemic, to support her three children. She describes wondering, “What am I going to do to keep putting food on the table?”

That’s when she found out about the restaurant, via social media. She now drives 30 minutes each way from where she lives, in the city of Ginowan, to get the bento boxes.

“I may not be able to survive without them,” she says.

Madoka Yamada, 41, who runs the diner, said she started receiving more messages via email and messaging apps in mid-March, seeking help. Most were from single parents who have lost their jobs.

Yamada’s diner had prepared cooked meals for about 40 people until the end of March, but now she and her 20-strong team cook double the amount — 80 bento boxes. For those who can’t come to get them, her team delivers the boxes to their homes.

But Yamada is not sure if that’s how such children’s cafeterias should be providing help.

The initial purpose of the venues was to provide a place for children to spend time, so they would have an opportunity to talk to staff about their troubles at school or home, including situations such as domestic violence, and to facilitate an intervention if necessary.

But there is no opportunity to talk with the children if they are just providing bento boxes and other food.

“We want to resume our diners for them, but we also fear the spread of infection,” said Rie Aka, 50, who runs the diner with Yamada. “We’ll do what we can now and eventually phase it back to what it was.”

Some are asking the prefectural government to draft guidelines on infection countermeasures to help the diners resume their activities.

“Children’s diners play an important role amid the pandemic. We would like to think of measures to support them so that they can resume their activities,” said an official at the prefectural government.

Another children’s diner, Nijinomori Bunko, in Naha, stopped offering meals to children every time the number of daily COVID-19 cases reported in Okinawa went up. The diner has offered bento boxes and other food products instead.

In some cases, children of women who have lost their jobs come by themselves to get the bento boxes, underscoring the need for the diner to continue its activities.

“We try to communicate with the families when they come,” said Tatsumi Kinjo, 52, who runs the diner. “Even if what we’re doing is not ideal, continuing what we have been doing is very important.”