Tag Archives: school lunches

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.

US Students say ‘We are hungry’.

Several weeks in to the new school year and whilst many schools are reporting success with the new healthier lunches, not all students are happy with them – in particular the restricted calorie counts.

Kansas school children say ‘set the policy on fire’.

The new rules say that all meals must include at least one fruit or vegetable whether the child will eat it or not, and many kids will take their fruit portion but then drop it straight into the garbage. Grains are switched to 50% wholegrain and from 2014 all will be wholegrain. Carbohydrates and protein is restricted and all milk is fat free or reduced fat.

The changes are part of the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids bill which came into law earlier this year and is designed to get kids eating far more healthily and to help curb frightening levels of child obesity in the US, but the calorie restrictions are a big change to what many kids are used to.

For kindergarten to 5th grade children the calories are set at 550 – 650 calories, 6th to 8th grade children get between 600 and 700 calories, and 9th to 12th grade teens are served meals of between 750 to 850 calories.

There have been some fantastic early success stories, like the Nebraska schools which have been recognised and awarded for reaching the gold standard in the Healthier U.S. School Challenge. Kitchen staff now all wear gold pins and the students were told by the USDA regional administrator that she would tell Washington politicians about their story.

Seven Lincoln district schools have all been recognised not only for their healthier lunches but also for their excellent wellbeing programmes and physical education.

But elsewhere some children are unhappy with their lunches. A CNN report here details how a Capac, Michigan school boy started posting pictures of his lunches to Facebook and began a boycott of the school cafeteria.

Similarly in Parsippanny New Jersey 1,000 students boycotted their school canteen bringing lunch bags instead. The children say they are left hungry by their restricted calorie meals. Moves like this could be disastrous for school caterers who will need to act fast to change things around or face big financial losses.

Meanwhile a YouTube music video called We Are Hungry has received almost a million hits. The video which is a spoof of the song We Are Young was put together by students at a Kansas school who say their new meals are not filling and they go home feeling hungry.

UK caterers have faced a similar – well publicised – early backlash to healthier school meals. Perhaps they can offer their US counterparts some advice on how to cope with bad news stories like this and act quickly to get their students back on side and in the dining halls.

We Are Hungry

Apologies and European School Food

So poor School Food World has got off to a rather bumpy start. Having launched it when I was quiet, I am suddenly inundated with work and have had to set the site on the back burner.

But my ideal is to post about school meals around the world if not every day then every other day, and my intention is that I will get better at finding the time to do that.

So finding myself with an unexpected extra hour this morning I thought I would attempt to get back on track by highlighting a recent post on the European Food Information Council website about school meals and nutritional standards. Unfortunately it’s not credited so I can’t say who wrote it, but it is an academic style summary of the way food is served and provided to children in different European countries. It also cites a number of studies and further references which is handy for me to do additional research.

After pointing to the benefits that nutritious school meals can have for children and their learning, the article goes on to describe some examples of best practice in different countries.

I particularly like the idea of a ‘plate model’ that’s used in Sweden and Finland where all school meals are funded by the government. Although children receive their food from a central server, the plate model at the start of the process allows them to serve themselves, but shows them roughly how their plate should look at the end.

This way of engaging children with the food selection process is a fantastic way of teaching them how to construct a healthy meal for themselves. If food is simply dropped on a plate by one of the school caterers, how much are the children involved with understanding the way the plate is made up? By allowing children to construct their own plate, you can have a conversation with them about how much protein, dairy, vegetables and carbohydrates should be there, and what excellent lessons and understanding to receive at such an early age. Invaluable for them going into the future.

Of course for caterers in the UK portion control would be an issue, which is perhaps why this works in countries where the food is funded by the government. But I would love to see a UK caterer trial this – perhaps amongst juniors rather than infants – and see how it went. I think most children would be sensible and know not to take too much of one item. Controls could be used by offering second helpings if children are still hungry and food is available at the end of service. Or turn it into a game where children receive a sticker if their plate closely resembles the model. What do you think? Would you be prepared to let juniors serve themselves?

In France school meals are constructed from a series of basic elements. Each lunch consists of a main, a side, a dairy item and a starter or dessert. The main will consist of meat, eggs, fish, cheese or offal (can you imagine the faces of British children?!).

French standards apply to lunches and sound complicated but I suspect are more simple when you know them. Based on a 20 meal rotation, restrictions are placed on how often items are served. So at least 10 of the 20 meals must have cooked vegetables, eight meals will be served with a fresh fruit pudding, 10 meals will include starchy foods, cereals or pulses and so on. Portion sizes vary according to the age of the children.

Some of the Benelux countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark – as well as Portugal, Switzerland and Austria (and also New Zealand and South Africa) do not have a well established school meal system. Mostly that’s because children tend to go home to eat because the school day ends early in the afternoon. Finnish children are not allowed to bring a packed lunch.

The article concludes that although standards applied to school meals are to be applauded, they will only work if children like, choose and eat the meals. It cites some examples where children are involved with menu selection and taste testing, and this again I think can only be beneficial for schools, caterers and children.

Everyone in a school needs to be fully engaged with the discussion and provision of lunches or take-up will continue to falter. Head teachers, governors, parents and children should be involved with – and excited by – meal options and be involved with the choices. Time and again it’s been shown that where the school kitchen and lunch is fully integrated as a part of school life, and children are involved with growing ingredients, or designing the meals, or tasting them, that catering provision will thrive and take-up will climb.

I’d love to hear about schools where this is happening and thoughts about how do we get busy head teachers and governors to really get behind their food provision.