‘Good intentions’: China’s canteens for seniors are losing money and shutting down from lack of demand

CCTV said six of a total of nine canteens had folded “due to losses” in a district in a central province, but did not name the exact location. Further investigation revealed that over 60 per cent of the province’s community canteens were running at a loss, according to the report.

Workers prepare food at a community canteen for the elderly in Chongqing, China in July 2023. Photo: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

In Beijing, a survey of 40 community canteens showed that more than half of them had lost money, and many said their losses were increasing.

The main reason for the losses is that far fewer elderly residents were patronising the canteens than expected.

According to research by Wang Defu, associate professor at Wuhan University’s school of social sciences, Suzhou’s community canteens served 24,000 meals last year – just one-fifth of the number predicted.

Wang’s research also showed that the 985 subsidised community canteens in the eastern province of Shandong served 950,000 meals last year, meaning each outlet only had three visits per day on average.

Unlike soup kitchens in the West, which are typically operated and funded by religious groups and charity organisations, China’s community canteens were created and subsidised by the government as a key part of a pilot plan launched by the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the Ministry of Civil Affairs in November 2022.

The plan ordered every Chinese city to pick pilot communities to experiment with “one-stop” community services, including convenience stores, nurseries, and senior centres.

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Since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has often visited these grass-roots cafeterias during regional inspection trips to check their food variety, hygiene and affordability.

Li Qing, 75, a retiree in Shandong, said he appreciated the “good intentions” behind the canteens, but he and his wife preferred to cook at home as they suffered from arthritis and found it difficult to walk to the dining hall.

“We did try out the food there when our son was around to bring us there. It was cheap and good. But he is now living elsewhere, so we rely on him to buy the groceries or have food delivered to our doorstep via food delivery apps,” Li said.

He said he would be willing to try the local canteens if they offered food delivery services.

“But they will have to face competition from other local food outlets,” he said. “We are old now. We want to enjoy a variety of good food in the last few years of our lives.”

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Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said local officials in China tended to follow Xi’s policy directions to show their political loyalty, and this was one of the main reasons behind the oversupply of community canteens and similar projects.

“Sometimes it even becomes a competition among the officials to fight for Beijing’s political attention. But once there is a cut on subsidies as local governments run into deficits, things will turn south,” Wu said.

In his interview with CCTV, Wuhan University’s Wang urged local governments to take a more “scientific assessment” of the needs of the elderly by looking into affordable and flexible meal delivery services.


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