Japan's Amazing School Lunch Program Is About More Than Just Eating

CC BY 2.0. Osamu Iwasaki

Lunch takes on a different nature when treated as an education period, rather than a recreational one.

The United States and Japan couldn’t be more different when it comes to school lunch programs. While the U.S. is considering cutting funding to school food programs for underprivileged kids, saying there’s insufficient evidence that feeding kids improves academic results, Japan places a high priority on feeding its schoolchildren healthy, homemade meals on a daily basis.

An article in The Atlantic’s City Lab blog, titled “Japan’s school lunch program puts others to shame,” explores how and why this nation-wide program has been so successful. More than 10 million elementary and secondary school students in 94 percent of the country’s schools are fed through this program, and the food they eat is a far cry from the greasy, reheated cafeteria food that features prominently at American schools.

The Japanese meals are prepared daily from scratch by a team of cooks who work in the school’s kitchen. Often they use vegetables grown on school property that are planted and tended by classes. From an early age, the kids get used to eating healthy, well-balanced meals that would appeal to many adults.

What really sets Japan apart, however, is the fact that it views lunch time as an educational period, not a recreational one. Lunch is a time for teaching kids important skills about serving food, table etiquette, and cleaning up – the polar opposite of the notoriously wild, uncontrolled, and messy lunch hour in U.S. schools that must be every janitor’s nightmare.

The Japanese government takes its responsibility seriously to teach kids good eating habits. Mimi Kirk writes for City Lab:

“There’s a term in Japanese for ‘food and nutrition education’: Shokuiku. In 2005, with more children battling eating disorders, the government enacted a law on Shokuiku that encourages schools to educate children on good food choices. In 2007, the government advocated for hiring diet and nutrition teachers. Though these teachers are only in a small percentage of elementary and junior high schools, research has shown their positive effects, from better school attendance to fewer leftovers.”

The following video illustrates shokuiki wonderfully. You see the children taking turns picking up the food cart in the kitchen, chanting a delightful “thank you” to the cooks who prepared it. They wash their hands, don proper serving outfits (smocks, hair nets, and face masks), and dole out the food to hungry, receptive classmates – roasted fish with pear sauce, mashed potatoes, vegetable soup, bread and milk. Nobody appears to complain about the food.

The teacher eats with the students, demonstrating good table manners and leading a discussion about the food’s origins. In the video, he focuses on the mashed potatoes, which come from the school garden. He tells the class, “You will plant these in March and eat them for lunch in July.” At other times, Kirk writes, the discussion may veer into Japanese food history or culture. After all, this is lesson time, too.

milk duty

YouTube/Screen capture

All of the students come prepared for lunch with reusable chopsticks, a cloth placemat and napkin, a cup, and a toothbrush. After the meal, they sit and brush their teeth before starting a frenzied 20-minute clean-up period that includes the classroom, hallway, entrance, and bathroom.

The White House administration should not be so quick to dismiss school meals. Such programs, if executed well, can do much more than fuel children for part of the day; they can influence the next generation to have healthier eating habits, expanded taste buds, and a better understanding of the value of food. A program like Japan’s can also develop skills, such as working in a kitchen, serving efficiently, and cleaning thoroughly, that will be very helpful later in life.