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Japan's once-spartan school lunches go upscale in big ways

20 Comments

Who says there's no such thing as progress?

In the years immediately following the war, the school lunch program adopted in Japan's public schools spawned a generation of well-nourished children, and must be credited at least in part for helping to double life expectancy figures since 1945.

Typical of the school meals served in the late 1940s might be "gomokumame" -- a nutritious but simple bowl of boiled soybeans mixed with bits of "konnyaku" (devil's tongue) and carrots -- a bottle of milk and a bread roll.

After paying visits to over 400 school cafeterias around the nation, however, writer Arata Shiraishi reports in Shukan Shincho (July 14) that meals are increasingly becoming "too extravagant."

"In the old days, the focus was on meeting basic nutritional values, and for that reason, back in those times I encountered many peculiar dishes," says Hiroko Yoshiwara, a journalist who has long researched the topic. "These days, things are completely different."

Some examples cited include local specialties such as bite-size pieces of deep-fried blowfish served in Sasebo City, Nagasaki Prefecture and tender Matsuzaka beef -- generically referred to as Kobe beef by Westerners -- in Matsuzaka City, Mie Prefecture. A school cafeteria in Hokkaido served "ikura domburi" (raw salmon roe over a bowl of rice); another in Tottori Prefecture offered an entire steamed "suwagani" (snow crab); and chefs at the Kashinoha primary school in Kashiwa City, Chiba Prefecture, collaborated with Suzunari, a Japanese restaurant that earned one star in the Michelin Japan guidebook, to produce several elaborate items, such as a broth with a tofu and grated turnip mixture served with locally grown Koshihikari rice.

Farms around Kashiwa, it seems, are Japan's top producer of turnips.

What is most astounding to Ms Yoshiwara, in a pleasant way, is that most of these meals are being prepared at costs ranging from 200 to 230 yen per serving.

"The overwhelming point for raising the standards of school lunch menus in recent years," Yoshiwara remarks, "is to go with an eye-popping appearance."

The name of the current law providing for school meals, which went into effect in 2005, contains the term "shoku-iku kihon" (basic instructions in a proper diet) and this, Yoshiwara is convinced, is responsible for sweeping changes that have led to tie-ups with farmers to supply tasty ingredients and schools to plan completely new menus, most of which focus on Japanese cuisine.

The tastier meals may also have the advantage of reducing wasted food.

"On days when organically grown rice is served to the children, hardly any food is discarded," notes a cafeteria worker at a primary school in Yokohama."

Tokyo's Adachi Ward went so far as to openly vow that it was going to create "Japan's most delicious school meals." Its first step was to create a department it named the "Adachi-ku Department of Education in Charge of Delicious Meals." With the ward's mayor as its titular head, it organized, from schools in the district, collaborative efforts by nutritionists and nutrition instructors.

"The percentage of unconsumed portions at primary school cafeterias in Adachi's lunch program dropped from 9% in 2008 to 3.7% in 2013," a staff member is quoted as saying. "At middle schools, it fell from 14% to 7.7% over the same period. Thanks to this, we could reduce raw waste from over 300 tons a year to less than 200 tons."

The new enthusiasm has also spurred Adachi's meal planners to seek more cosmopolitan recipes, with exotic dishes like biscuit bread with Hungarian goulash.

An Adachi resident in his 40s who attended a local primary school back in the 1980s recalls that his ward's school meals once had a reputation for being among the capital's worst. But when Adachi Ward recently surveyed kids on how they felt about their school meals, over 90% responded with favorable replies.

© Japan Today

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20 Comments
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I'll bet these specialty dishes only happen a few times over the course of any given school year. And the costs per meal makes me wonder where the ingredients are being purchased from as well. Even bulk purchases of these products costs quite a bit.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Always interesting to read stories on aspects of life here through the eyes of the vernacular press. And the writer certainly appears to have done his homework. I visited a university dining hall a couple of years ago and was amazed at how varied the meal offerings were -- back in the old days the were limited to curry and rice, udon and croquettes with grated cabbage and miso soup. It's a new world, folks!

3 ( +5 / -2 )

The name of the current law providing for school meals, which went into effect in 2005, contains the term “shoku-iku kihon” (basic instructions in a proper diet) and this... is responsible for sweeping changes that have led to tie-ups with farmers...

In many ways I give a resounding thumbs up to Japan's "shoku-ku" (food education) curriculum and the way it is tied into school lunch programs. For instance, at my children's pre-school/daycare there were activities from seed to table where the children planted a vegetable garden, then tended it and harvested the produce, and helped in using the vegetables to make a healthy school lunch. They also had a full-time nutritionist on staff. The lunches were always healthy.

This was in sharp contrast to the school lunches my children were served while in the U.S. One of the lunches there, which I saw, consisted of tortilla chips with a small dose of salsa (the vegetable), smothered with fake cheese. Not even a healthy snack, let alone a "meal."

On the negative side, the "shoku-iku" is used as an inroad for the JA and other Japanese agricultural and food industry special interests (who I am certain were behind the "shoku-iku kihon") to disseminate their food propaganda to young, malleable minds. This involves lots content about "Japanese food culture" that is implicitly and explicitly slanted against imported food, and involves things like occasionally serving whale meat (once a year in my children's case) to "teach" them about the integral/historic role of whale meat in Japanese food culture.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Last year, I taught at two Junior High Schools in Kanagawa Prefecture, and ate lunch with the students daily. Lunches are delivered in stainless steel containers/buckets to the classrooms by kitchen staff. Students then form a cafeteria-style line and serve class members. The side dishes and soup served with each meal often looked very alike. All the meat courses seemed popular, except the sardines, which were eaten (reluctantly) bones and all. Students did "janken" for left over food or milk.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I would never miss school on ikura domburi and curry days. So the chances are I would of stay on at school and went on to uni, simply because of free lunches. In Australia they used to gave us a small bottle of warm milk every morning, That because school had no fridges. No lunches were or are given to school student in Australia. But I have notice places like the UK, America and Japan do. I think it waste of money. But in Australia we do put on breakfast for student who don,t get breakfast. We don,t let kid go without either. If a teacher notices that a pupil is go without food, The school will much sure that kid gets a feed each day.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I must have been very unlucky. Back when I worked at a Japanese elementary school the best I could hope for was that the lunches weren't terrible.

While certainly healthier than the junior high school I went to as a kid (where many students went through the line that served hamburgers, french fries, and chocolate "milk"shakes every day), I still don't know that I can say Japanese schools are better. The lack of an element of choice is really a problem, both for the students who have allergies and for the kids who just plain hate certain foods. I go to dinner with people who grew up in this system and I find we're sold food at restaurants no one actually wants (we're served it without asking, ostensibly as a "service" but its price is surely accounted in other dishes) and that the Japanese diners claim to dislike, but they miserably eat it anyway because food must never be wasted.

No wonder the airwaves are chock full of celebrities screaming "oishiii~" like it's a new revelation. The idea that food should be enjoyed as a matter of choice, not simply endured as a matter of duty, must come as a great surprise.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Watching the way some of those kids ate, I couldn't help thinking that may be the only meal for some of them.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Its been proven that eating good health meals fuels the mind and body, my late wife was on the board of governors at a local school and she fought off the council, the local council wanted to close the school kitchen (to save money) and then every day bring in warmed up food, this was done on a trial period, it was noted that 90% of the food went in the waste bin because it was foul! warmed up veg!!! no thank you. any way after a long battle the council collapsed and gave in, the kitchen was reopened after some modifications, it was noted that the children in the late afternoon, were more focused and paid more attention to there studies. they were more active and less lethargic, so it just goes to show that good nutritious food is essential to a healthy mind and body.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

disseminate their food propaganda to young, malleable minds.

I think you are right, Sensato. I have not met a student who has not been taught in school that we must eat meat.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Nothing about how bad junior high school lunches in Osaka became after privatization.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Hey, nothing wrong about educating the kids with quality food, especially if it's really costing that little! Certainly better than feeding them chicken nuggets, fries, and soda.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

There is little waste because teachers pressure kids to eat and drink everything, even if they are allergic to things like milk of which I am. I get severe cramps after drinking it.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

“On days when organically grown rice is served to the children, hardly any food is discarded,” notes a cafeteria worker at a primary school in Yokohama.”

How on earth can anyone know whether cooked rice is organic or not.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

How on earth can anyone know whether cooked rice is organic or not."

Teacher: "Kids, today's rice is organically grown so eat up ne!"

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

DRLUCIEFER< quite easy in the Uk, farmers have traceability, the farm is inspected and its monitored, the farm has to meet certain criteria before its give the stamp of organic this process can take up to 7 months, they want to know what fertiliser is used etc etc, but in country that is endemicly corrupt what chance that is 100% organic we will have to watch and see.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I live across the street from an elementary school in Adachi-ku. I love curry days. Smells so good! I have also eaten a couple school lunches in Adachi-ku and they were absolutely delicious. I was amazed after growing up on lousy frozen sausage pizza and corn dogs in the states.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I hate to think how much lard is used in Japanese curry.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

...(basic instructions in a proper diet).. sadly this diet is based on the out-of-date theories of the US NIH, National Institute of Health, with their dodgy food groups, food pyramid, calorie counting, RDAs etc. Accurate uncensored health data is in a set of 11 new, uncensored guides on the tthairsolutions dor com site.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

After spending two years in the American Public School sector, I can safely say that Japanese School Lunches are FAR above and beyond anything that US Public Schools serve. Private schools, on the other hand, have great school lunches!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

On this topic at least, the Japanese need take no lectures from Western Anglophone countries. They are streets ahead in giving kids nutritious, healthy creative food and child obesity rates are way lower than in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, etc. Carry on Japan!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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