About 50 schoolchildren asked for free meals from convenience stores in New Taipei City (新北市) on Tuesday, the first day of a city government project to provide free meals to underprivileged school children, officials said.
Under the plan, called “Happy Guardian Stations,” outlets of four convenience chain stores — 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Hi-Life and OK Mart — will provide boxed meals, noodles, bread or beverages worth up to NT$80 to hungry children under the age of 18.
The program is based on the principle of “relief for those in an emergency, but not those in poverty.”
Children receiving free meals will be required to leave their contact information, and social welfare institutions will be contacted to arrange for other assistance if needed.
Lin Teng-chiao (林騰蛟), commissioner of the city’s Education Department, said many of the children were in distress, citing the example of a brother and sister in elementary school who live with their grandmother.
The grandmother was unable to provide them with dinner because she had high blood pressure, and they asked for help at a convenience store at 8pm, he said.
After they finished their meals, they thanked the store clerk, said Lin, who described the case as being in line with the “relief in an emergency, but not in poverty” principle.
In Banciao District (板橋), a child from a low-income family asked for a free meal because both parents work late.
The mother, after getting a call from a social worker, apologized and said she would remind her child not to go to the store to ask for a free meal again.
“We must leave the resources for the really needy,” she said.
An employee at a FamilyMart in Taishan District (泰山), surnamed Chu (朱), said the project was well-intended, but that the store still had to get accustomed to it.
“Those who really need the meals might be too shy to open their mouths [and ask for help],” she said.
New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) expressed appreciation for the convenience chains’ support.
He said he hoped that the public would look at the plan in a positive light and understand that it is ultimately aimed at identifying those who need emergency assistance.
“As long as we can identify one out of 100 people who really needs help and provide follow-up assistance to avoid later tragedy, that will be good enough for us,” Lin said.
He said that about 18,000 students under the age of 18 in New Taipei City live in unstable family situations. There are another 15,000 school-aged children who are not in school and also need regular emergency assistance. Youngsters in both groups rarely get the help they need, and the project is aimed at preventing those children from falling through cracks in social services, Lin said.
The city government has asked participating stores to notify the city’s high-risk family center of a child’s request for a free meal within 24 hours so that social and education departments can arrange a visit to the family.
Lin said the NT$2 million (US$69,000) in funding for the project was provided by the Good Samaritans and not the city government, but he did not foresee any funding problems.
“We have received calls from people over the past few days saying that they wanted to make donations,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble with finding funding.”
Education Department deputy commissioner Kung Ya-wen (龔雅雯) said the department has thought about how to handle those who abuse the program or those who use fake names to get free meals.
Kung said the department has decided on a “three strikes” principle, meaning that if the same person abuses the program or uses a false name three times, the individual will be turned over to police for identification and then be handed over to their school to be disciplined.