Where’s the milk? School lunches no longer sacred cows

January 26th, 2015 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Screen shot of February lunch menus for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

The February lunch menu for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

Last Saturday was the start of Gakko Kyushoku Shukan (School Lunch Week), an annual celebration of the meals that public elementary and junior high school students in Japan enjoy every day by force of law.

School lunches have been a point of pride for Japan’s education institutions, a means of integrating lifelong health maintenance into the standard curriculum. On another level, mandatory school lunches, as the late writer Kuniko Mukoda once famously pointed out, was the basis for the widespread idea that all Japanese belonged to the “middle class.”

Several years ago, the government said it wanted to reinforce “food education,” though it hardly seems necessary since the school lunch program already does that, and very effectively. According to law, all public school children below high school must buy lunch, and those who cannot afford it receive subsidies from the authorities. Each school will have its own nutritionist to make sure the children receive properly balanced meals. In terms of cost, the ingredients for the meals will be paid for by the students, meaning their parents, while labor, maintenance and other related expenses are taken care of by local governments with help from the central government.

This latter element has lately been challenged as more local governments look for ways to cut their budgets. Last summer, Sanjo, a city in Niigata Prefecture, “experimentally” stopped serving milk with lunches at 30 public schools. The ostensible reason, according to the mayor, was that parents complained that milk doesn’t fit in with the Japanese cuisine the schools served.

The experiment happened to coincide with the consumption tax hike that went into effect last April, and the mayor conceded that one reason for cutting milk was to “prevent further increases in the cost of school lunches.” At the time, parents were paying ¥250 for elementary school children’s lunches and ¥300 for junior high school. The carton of milk that came with every meal cost the city ¥50.

Naturally, the Hokuriku Dairy Association protested strongly against Sanjo’s decision. Last year, Niigata dairy farmers produced 53,600 tons of milk, 14 percent of which was used in school lunches. The association challenged the opinion that milk doesn’t go with Japanese food, as did nutritionists, who pointed out that the absence of milk on a daily basis could have a negative effect on a child’s development, since a carton contains 200 of the minimum 300-400 grams of calcium required.

Even the education ministry found the experiment strange, saying it had “never heard of a school giving up milk for lunches.” Sanjo countered that the calcium could be made up easily by, for instance, fortifying soup with fish stock. In any event, the city received 61 messages from residents, with 43 supporting the experiment.

As the dairy association’s reaction shows, school lunches are an important source of revenue for local producers, and often local governments tweak menus to help farmers. Six years ago, Sanjo stopped serving bread and noodles in its school lunches and replaced these staples with rice full time in order to promote the area’s rice farmers.

The city of Kyoto recently did something similar, increasing the use of rice in its bid to promote “Japanese food culture” in line with UNESCO’s plan to register washoku as a cultural heritage item. Previously, Kyoto schools served rice four days a week and on the remaining day bread or noodles, but they decided to do rice all the time. Bolstering Sanjo’s claim about milk, Kyoto by the same token wants to promote green tea as the standard lunch beverage.

As Asahi Shimbun pointed out, school lunches have always had a political dimension. After the war, food was scarce, and U.S. relief agencies and UNICEF provided Japanese public schools with powdered milk and wheat. Some people believe it had less to do with charity than with getting Japanese children hooked on bread, so that U.S. farmers could sell more wheat to Japan.

In any event, Japanese of a certain age remember vividly the white bread loaves (koppe-pan) and cups of lumpy, yellowish milk they consumed every day until the mid-60s, when fresh milk was finally introduced. White rice didn’t become common in school lunches until around 1975. Similarly, the Japanese whaling industry had a kind of captive market for its wares.

Since then, Japanese school lunches have become the envy of the world and are considered instrumental in putting children on a path to avoid the obesity that plagues so many industrialized countries where school lunches are optional and discretionary.

Nevertheless, cost is a concern. According to the education ministry, average monthly fees for school lunches in 2013 ranged from ¥3,691 for the first three years of elementary school to ¥4,628 for junior high school. The ministry also found that labor, maintenance and other costs borne by local governments tend to be more than twice the cost of ingredients. The average cost of a meal is now between ¥880 and ¥920, which means the local government has to pay the difference when the ¥250-¥300 fee paid by parents is subtracted.

As Sankei Shimbun once pointed out, the cost of providing one meal to a child is higher than it is for the average salaryman, which in 2007 was ¥650. But maybe that isn’t so strange when you consider the general feeling that school lunches are held in such high esteem. Some local governments even serve school lunches to the general public in restaurants. They are very popular, and not just for nostalgic reasons.

Tags: , , ,

2 Responses

  1. One wonders about the quality (and budgeting) of the lunches being served in city halls, prefectural offices, and national quango buildings across the country, and how they compare to what growing kids with solid energy and nutritional requirements are getting.

    Reminds me of the situation in my hometown in rural Australia, where summertime temperatures routinely flirted with 40 — no air conditioning for the schools, but you’d better believe every government department was nice and chilled.

  2. FWIW, as a teacher in the Japanese public school system, I eat school lunch every day, often with my students. And I find that my city, at least, provides a meal which, honestly, is probably my most healthy meal of the day. Even if I had the option to bring my own lunch (and I do not), I do not think I would choose to do so.

RSS

Recent posts