Japanese Lessons

School Food in Japan – Homemade, healthy and social.

The Washington Post had a great little photo feature this weekend (Saturday 26th January 2013) about school meals in Japan that’s really worth a look.

The report visited the Umejima Elementary School in Tokyo and reports that school meals for children there are much the same as their parents – and even their grandparents – were eating for the past 40 years.

Screen grab from the Washington Post - please take the time to look at all their photos.

Screen grab from the Washington Post – please take the time to look at all their photos.

Mostly the meals are prepared daily from scratch in the school kitchen. In the Umejima school a team of 12 begin work on the lunch at 8.00am and by midday they have lunch ready for the 760 pupils. The lunch is well balanced and there is plenty of it. The children typically get a plate of rice, a bowl of vegetables and a broth or soup. There is not generally so much meat but often plenty of fish or tofu and loads of vegetables. The children also get a carton of milk, and in the pictures a satsuma.

This balance makes the meals very affordable to produce. The report claims much of the food is grown locally and that the provenance of the meat is always known. The ingredients are almost always fresh – rarely frozen.

Aside from these practical issues of the food, there are several other really striking differences about the way the Japanese children have their lunch. For starters, at regular intervals in the year a nutritionist gives them a lesson about their food right before their lunch so they understand a balanced diet. “If you finish your lunch you’ll be eating 21 ingredients,” she tells them.

Secondly the children themselves serve the food to their peers. They take it in turns to wear the lunch overalls and then they serve their classmates. The food is not gobbled the instant the child takes their seat, but they wait politely until the others sat at their table join them. And then, guess what, the children clear their plates. The report says that they are encouraged to eat all their food, but in the UK or the US – even with encouragement – how many children will eat all their lunch every day? And finally, at the end of lunch, the children clear and stack their empty plates and bowls and wheel them back to the kitchen for the staff to wash.

I love the social aspect of all this. It’s something I wish they would focus more on in British and American dining halls. It’s so important. In class the children rarely get the chance to chat, and in the playground the dynamic is active and therefore different. But the simplicity of sitting and eating together and just being able to chat and learn more about your friends, and laugh together and share concerns is just so valuable.

I also love the basic manners of waiting for everyone to join the table before eating, and of the simple giving and taking, service and gratitude elements of the children themselves serving the food, and not relying on adults to, well, spoon-feed them, or to take that responsibility and self-sufficiency away from them. The adults guide them on serving size. The children usually eat in their classrooms without the clamour of a large hall.

They’re not allowed to bring food from home, unless they have special dietary requirements – at least until secondary (or high) school. And there are no vending machines. Meanwhile childhood obesity has shrunk over the last six years since the Japanese government grew their dietary education programme. Looking at the global picture Japanese children are set to have longer lifespans than children in any other country, and they have one of the lowest childhood obesity levels in the world. There is also no malnutrition from poverty, although there are some problems of eating disorders and some underweight children. But most schools employ a nutritionist who not only teaches nutrition but also works with individuals who have less healthy diets or are fussy eaters.

The nutritionist is also responsible for designing the daily menus and dishes. For UK and US caterers finding ways to work within the regulation of nutritional guidelines, they may be interested to know that whilst there are broad government guidelines in Japan, there is no regulation. There are no calorie controls. Schools are permitted the freedom to do their own thing and whilst local authorities have the ability to step in if a school were serving unhealthy food, they’ve not so far needed to do that.

Schools don’t serve low fat food. Pudding is only ever fruit or yoghurt. There is almost no fried food, and when there is it’s served in tiny amounts. And, partly because the children eat all their food, they’ve reduced food waste to an impressively minute 5%.

The school principal reports that parents often phone in requesting the recipes for the restaurant standard food the school serves, and in fact the district produces a cook book detailing the best meals they produce. The children draw pictures of their favourite dishes and produce. On their website the school lists the provenance of the ingredients. The recipes change with seasonality.

There are historic post-war reasons why the Japanese have focussed on healthy eating, which you can read more about in the Washington Post feature, but it is clearly paying off. More recently – perhaps to combat an influx of more Westernised High Street or mall foods, there has been a new Delicious School Lunch scheme running for the past five years to help get the kids more interested in their food. The cost to parents is about £1.50 or $3 per meal, which covers the cost of the ingredients. Labour costs are covered by the local authority. There are free and cheaper payment options for low waged families.

But perhaps the main difference is that the Japanese model has achieved something that many school caterers and others interested in school food have started to push for at least in the UK. And that is that the school meal has become a part of their curriculum. In a quote in the feature Masahiro Oji who is a government director of school health education says, “Japan’s standpoint is that school lunches are a part of education not a break from it.”

Something the western school systems could undoubtedly learn from.

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