School lunch in Japan: is it so different?

(photo credit: chrissam42)

Since the focus of this site is bentos for lunch, I'm always fascinated by the subject of lunch in general. An interesting article in the Washington Post appeared yesterday, about school lunches in Japan. As is common with such articles in the mainstream media it is written rather provocatively, starting with the opening paragraph which states: "In Japan, school lunch means a regular meal, not one that harms your health. The food is grown locally and almost never frozen. There’s no mystery in front of the meat. From time to time, parents even call up with an unusual question: Can they get the recipes?" Since the intended audience is American, it seems to be implying that school lunches in the United States 'harm your health', come in frozen and are cursed with 'mystery meat'. Yikes.

I'm not sure about the school lunches at this school (which is in Adachi ward in central Tokyo) being so delicious that kids want the recipes, but contrary to what some of the comments to the article imply, from my experience it seems to be a fairly typical public elementary school. There's an interesting graphic here which shows some school lunches from various public and private elementary schools around Japan (the ones on the far right are historical lunches, from the 1950s and the 1920s respectively), and as you can see there isn't a huge amount of difference.

Squid Fritters
(photo credit: chrissam42)

I had a very similar experience with school lunch in Japan when I was in elementary school decades ago, and talking to my sister my niece and nephew have had similar experiences too. Here are the main characteristics of school lunch in Japan:

  • School lunch is called kyuushoku (給食). Most elementary schools have school lunch programs, but they aren't as common in kindergarten or middle school and high school. (Many universities have cafeterias where students can purchase meals.)
  • The menus, called kondate (献立) are planned by a certified nutritionist (called an eiyoushi (栄養士)) every month. Some schools have their own nutritionist, and others have district-wide ones. In my day the monthly menu was handed out as a printout to take home, but nowadays they are also published online. A Google Image Search for "school lunch menu" (給食献立表) turns up a ton of them, from all around the country.
  • A typical school lunch has a carb, which can be rice, bread or pasta/noodles of some kind; 1 or 2 proteins (not always fish); some vegetables; and often a soup of some sort. Sometimes there was a small dessert too, like a caramel pudding or something. A container or bottle of whole milk is always included. This was initiated by the federal government in the postwar period, based on the belief that dairy was critical to the health of children, and continues to this day. The menus are both traditional Japanese and western or yohshoku (western-style Japanese). (The comparison chart of typical school lunch menus that accompanies the Washington Post article does show the diversity somewhat - they have "Indian style curry" as well as pasta, in addition the stereotypical rice-and-miso-soup, but it seem to emphasize the menus that have the 'weird Japanese food' like squid and konnyaku (devil's tongue, OMG!) Incidentally, the American menu on the left doesn't look that unhealthy to me either.)
  • As the article states, lunch is brought to each classroom on a cart, and the kids take turns serving to the class. A Japanese classroom is divided into han or groups of 6 or so. The han unit performs a lot of activities together, from chores such as serving lunch and cleaning the classroom to walking together as a group on school outings and such. School lunch serving duty works like this: the rolling cart or a folding table with all the food and utensils for the class is set up. The kids in the han that's on duty usually put on a paper cap (rather like a shower cap) or headscarf, and sometimes a smock or coverall. The other kids go up to the serving station, also in hans, and are served by the on-duty kids. Preportioned food like milk and bread rolls are just placed on the tray, while soups and stews and such have to be ladled out. If there's some left over after everyone is served, there are seconds for the hungry kids. When the kids are done they bring their trays up the serving station, which is taken away by staff. Teachers aren't obligated to each the school lunch (at least they weren't in my school, or in the school my niece goes to) but they often do, otherwise they bring a bento. (By the way, cleaning duty means sweeping up and dusting the classroom and the hallway outside the classroom, not heavy-duty cleaning like doing the bathrooms and public areas and such. Japanese schools still have janitorial staffs for that kind of thing. The idea is to instill a sense of responsibility in the kids, that they have to clean up after themselves.)

(photo credit: vincentvds2, who also has a lot of other pictures of school lunches from a school in Yokohama in his Flickr stream.)

Japanese school lunches are fairly healthy but aren't perfect by any means. In recent years concerns have been raised about how they aren't as healthy or balanced as they used to be. On the other hand, there has been a concerted effort to use school lunch as part of shokuiku (食育), or food education. I wrote about shokuiku a while back in the context of bento lunches at a kindergarten. In some areas they've taken the concept of shokuiku to educate kids on local and traditional foods, incorporating such items into the menu. Of course there is a struggle between what the adults want the kids to eat vs. what the kids really want to eat. Even in my school days decades ago, the most popular lunch items were things like spaghetti with meat sauce and curry rice, and kids these days are if anything even more fond of 'western' food than we were.

What you really don't hear about in Japan are complaints about geographical or class differences in school lunches. As I stated above, school lunch quality is pretty much the same regardless of where the school ls, and whether it's a public school or an expensive private school. This seems to be a huge point of contention in the U.S. though whenever the subject of school lunch comes up - how some school districts can 'afford' fresh cooked meals while others much rely on premade, frozen fare. This probably has a lot to do with how schools are funded and perceived in each country, but that is rather beyond the scope of this post.

So, what are your thoughts on the Washington Post article and school lunches in general? What are school lunches like at your kids' schools, or how were they when you were in school? Do you think bringing your own lunch from home, or sending your kids off to school with a packed lunch, is a better way?

(ETA) Japanese school lunches aren't low calorie or low fat

Although the Washington Post article itself doesn't mention it, many of the comments to it talk about how Japanese kids must be avoiding obesity since the lunches are low in calories. This is a wrong assumption actually - those lunches are not really calorie restricted. The idea is that growing children need plenty of calories for growth and to give them energy for study, play and physical activity. The milk that's distributed for instance is full fat, not low fat, and many menus incorporate deep fried foods and so on - but in small quantities. (You can see deep fried and breaded fish in the photo above, and the one above that has some kind of sphere shaped deep fried food which I'm guessing is made from squid or something. There are many kinds of fried foods in Japanese cuisine.) Childhood obesity is a growing problem in Japan, but still not the major one it is in places like the U.S., and it's usually thought to be something that should be dealt with at home, as well as via increased physical activity rather than calorie restriction.

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