Dining Out on Your Doorstep
China Today
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Dining Out on Your Doorstep

At 5 a.m., workers at the cafeteria inside the 3rd Residential Compound of Jinding Street in Shijingshan District, Beijing, begin their daily work. By 7 a.m. deep fried dough cakes, steamed buns stuffed with meat, eggs stewed in sauce, and several kinds of congee porridge are ready to be served. Ma Fengqin, a 69-year-old who lives nearby, has her breakfast at the cafeteria every day. “It saves me from cooking early in the morning, and gives me more time for morning exercise,” she said, while enjoying a bowl of porridge.

The popular cafeteria was opened by Beijing Shouhua Property Management Co., Ltd. in its own working area. “A cafeteria on the doorstep of those unable to cook three meals a day for themselves is a big relief to people, especially the elderly,” said Ma Bin, secretary of the Working Committee of the Communist Party of China of Jinding Street.

Convenience for the Elderly

According to the 2023 work report of the Beijing municipal government, there would be 80 pilot “15-minute-radius community life circles” across the city to provide better services in local communities. This is an urban planning concept, in which neighborhoods provide residents with the basic things they need within a 15-minute radius by foot. The Jinding Street division of the Beijing Shouhua Property Management Co., Ltd. manages eight residential compounds in Shijingshan District, covering 8,900 households, with elderly residents constituting the majority of the population. Liu Chan, the program manager, indicated that the main targets of the community service centers are the elderly and young children. In addition to providing professional childcare services for children aged 0 to 3 in the community, efforts are also made to run cafeterias that help those in need.

Sixty-seven-year-old Kan and his wife have both retired and spend most of their time at home. Neither of them are in good health, and their children have moved out. Therefore having three meals a day on time has become a major challenge in their lives. Since last May, the old couple have been dining at the community cafeteria.

“At noon, a RMB 25 set meal for two is good enough for us. The rice and soup are free. The price is reasonable, and it’s very convenient.” His wife said that the dishes are different every day, and she feels the variety is good for her appetite. The couple are satisfied with the cafeteria.

In addition to serving nearby communities, this cafeteria also attracts many people looking for takeaways, along with migrant workers in nearby construction sites. Liu said that the cafeteria follows a non-profit and people-oriented approach. “We want to serve anyone in need,” she said.

According to Liu, the cafeteria currently only provides breakfast and lunch, and the number of daily diners is around 150. “The cafeteria started operating in November 2022, and many residents are still unaware of its existence,” she said. In order to play a bigger role, the company plans to provide meals to elderly care stations to benefit more residents in surrounding areas.

“Through practical assistance, we aim to improve the quality of life of more elderly people in the community by providing them with good meals,” said Liu.

Last-Mile Service

Thirty-five-year-old Sun Xiao lives in Liujiayao Nanli, Fengtai District. Her father’s sudden hospitalization last spring made her a regular patron of a community cafeteria nearby.

Sun is the only child in her family and lives with her parents. She had to work, take care of her mother who was in poor health, and make sure that her father ate well in hospital. By chance, she discovered a cafeteria for the elderly near her home. She tried it out and found that the food there was not only inexpensive, but also delicious. “A meal of about RMB 20 can be very good, with a combination of meat and vegetable dishes, which also suit the tastes of the elderly,” she said. Most of the meals her father ate during his hospitalization were purchased from the cafeteria, making her life less stressful.

Both at the community cafeteria in the third Residential Compound of Jinding Street and the elderly restaurant in Sun’s residential area, customers holding senior citizen cards can also enjoy a government subsidy of RMB 3 per day. As a result, community members holding senior citizen cards frequently visit the cafeterias.

Due to factors such as operating costs, most meal service outlets for the elderly in Beijing don’t provide delivery services, which to some extent affects the provision of better services for the elderly. “If there’s a meal delivery service, there may be more beneficiaries,” said Liu. She mentioned that it required the joint efforts of the government and the operators. “Community cafeterias also need to solve the last-mile problem.”

Over the past three years, Beijing has incorporated elderly care meal services into key livelihood projects of the municipal government, implemented policies such as those on improving the management of elderly care meal services, responded to the concerns of this group, and made efforts to meet the expectations of the elderly with specific actions.

According to Guo Hanqiao, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau, since 2022, Beijing has built a total of 1,770 elderly care meal service entities, including 1,246 elderly care institutions, 339 catering enterprises, and 185 elderly dining tables and cafeterias, covering 4,980 urban and rural communities and more than 2.58 million people.

Make It Sustainable

On October 20, 2023, with the approval of the State Council, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and 11 other agencies jointly issued an action plan to promote the development of meal services for the elderly, proposing 18 measures and requirements in six areas. Developing meal services for senior citizens is an important part of implementing the national strategy to respond to population aging and an important livelihood project. It is also an important measure to support home-based elderly care and enhance the well-being of the elderly.

“A clean, convenient, and reasonably priced community cafeteria is an important part of a sound community. It is a platform for enhancing communication, volunteer services, and joint contributions in a community,” said Yang Jitang, dean of the Institute of Urban and Rural Primary-Level Social Governance at Beijing Union University. He said that community cafeterias are a kind of public welfare, and how to achieve their sustainable operation is a question that needs consideration.

The business model of Yihai Garden Community Cafeteria in Fengtai District, Beijing is an upgraded version of the Jinding Street Community Cafeteria. It has been operating since 2018 and provides three meals a day. Directly managed by the property management company running the community, it was transformed from a cafeteria for the company’s employees, hence the rent is low. With the increasing demand for dining among residents, the property management company has increased its services. In addition to providing dining services, there are also takeout kitchens, convenience dining vans, and home delivery services. Guo Xiaochen, director of the general office of the property management company, said that the community cafeteria is directly operated by them, which helps provide a more timely response to the needs of community residents and is also more suitable for the home-based elderly care model.

Senior residents are the main customers of community cafeterias. Shopping for groceries and cooking may seem simple for the young, but is not so easy for elderly people, especially those with disabilities, suffering from dementia, or living alone. Yang said that property management companies with standard management and quality services should not only leverage their advantages of being familiar with the community and providing convenient services, but also explore the way to run community cafeterias, ultimately achieving a win-win result for both sides.

In Yang’s view, we couldn’t simply equate community cafeterias with “elderly cafeterias.” Many office workers, young people living alone, and working parents are also their potential customers. In addition, appealing to these groups is an important way for community cafeterias to make money and realize sustainable development.

As an important component of grassroots public services, community cafeterias reflect the level of primary-level governance and the efforts of local governments to improve people’s livelihoods. However, how to achieve a balance between government procurement of public services and reasonable market profits for operators is a practical issue that needs resolution.

“We should explore suitable operation and management models in different regions, which should not only meet the needs of community residents, especially the elderly and the very young, but also be able to achieve the sustainable development of community cafeterias, while improving the quality of our services,” said Yang.

Tang Chengpei, vice minister of civil affairs, said that the action plan released last October regarded the development of elderly meal assistance services as an important part of government work for the people. It guided different regions to promote such services based on local conditions, and encouraged flexible, targeted policy measures concerning service supply, service quality, and sustainability to make these services safe, affordable, and accessible.

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