By Hiroe Ushiroda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
FUKUOKA — An increasing number of universities are getting involved in “kodomo shokudo” (see below) — cafeterias that provide free or inexpensive meals for children from low-income families and others.
While most kodomo shokudo are run by nonprofit organizations and other groups, universities see an opportunity for students studying subjects such as social welfare to gain experience with children in difficult circumstances.
One cafeteria was organized in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, by volunteer students from Chikushi Jogakuen University in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, and Kurume University in Kurume.
In November last year, children who attend a free cram school for low-income families tried to make monja-yaki pancakes at the kodomo shokudo.
“It’s tasty and hot,” a 13-year-old first-year junior high school student said with a smile around a mouthful of monja-yaki. “It was my first time making it. I had fun.”
Chikushi Jogakuen students, mainly from the faculty of human sciences, started the kodomo shokudo this academic year. Working with other universities, they organize a kodomo shokudo in Kurume about once every two months. They also invite children from children’s nurseries, free cram schools and other places for meals at the university cafeteria and other places.
“At first I felt it might be difficult to approach [the children], but by talking to them and trying other things, they came to open up,” said Hinako Nakayama, 21, a third-year student at the university.
Ryo Onishi, an associate professor of child welfare theory at the university’s faculty of human sciences, said: “This isn’t just for students to improve their skills. By interacting with the students, the children start thinking more about going onto higher education.”
Children had a variety of positive responses when a university student on scholarship recounted their experience. One child said, “I think I’ll do what I can for my future.”
Students studying nutrition and other subjects at the University of Niigata Prefecture and Niigata Seiryo University, both in Niigata, have devised vegetable-rich menus.
“Students from a variety of fields, like welfare and childcare, share their knowledge about what will make children smile,” said Kaori Matsuya, 21, a third-year student at the University of Niigata Prefecture.
Last summer, students from the departments of education and clinical psychology at Fukuoka University’s faculty of humanities in Fukuoka and others started a kodomo shokudo for children whose parents have mental illnesses.
Five children, ranging from infants to elementary school students, meet once a month at the university.
Students from the university receive practical training at facilities that provide support for people with mental illnesses and other places. However, there is apparently almost no support available for these people’s children.
“Many children can’t honestly express themselves because they’re worried about their parents,” said Yoko Sarada, a professor of clinical psychology at the university who leads the program.
“It made me think about how to approach individual children. I couldn’t understand that just from going to class,” said Tetsuya Miyamaru, a third-year student who wants to be a school counselor.
Some existing kodomo shokudo with staff shortages are trying to receive help from students.
Osaka Kyoiku University in Kashiwara, Osaka Prefecture, has partnered with the Osaka municipal government to dispatch its students to kodomo shokudo. Support for learning and other areas is provided.
Starting in the 2018 academic year, the university is considering granting university credit to participating students, or special treatment on the municipal teacher’s examination.
■ Kodomo shokudo
Many “children’s cafeterias” are run by volunteers using donated food and funds. Some are open to all children, serving as community gathering spots. The first kodomo shokudo opened in 2012 at a vegetable shop in Ota Ward, Tokyo, that offered meals. The Kodomo Shokudo Network was launched in 2015 to provide cafeteria managers with a place to share information. The network now has about 280 member organizations. There are more than 500 kodomo shokudo nationwide, according to the network.