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