Food Education in Japan: Delicious School Lunch (Shokuiku)

Food Education in Japan: Delicious School Lunches

The Secret of the Nation of Health and Longevity Is in Its School Lunches

One of the local wards of Tokyo, Adachi City, is in the spotlight for serving school lunches that are so tasty that children ask, “Mom, the lunch I ate at school today was yummy. Could you make it for me at home too?” These school lunches are not just tasty. The amount of calories and nutritional balance they provide is also properly calculated.

School Lunch Is the Key to Health

We take it for granted that “you are what you eat,” but how many people are properly aware of this during their day-to-day lives?

Japanese elemenntary school children serving school lunches in their classroom
Japanese elemenntary school children serving school lunches in their classroom

Until the latter part of the Meiji period (1868-1912), there were five disciplines to children’s education in Japan: diet, physical education, knowledge, skills, and morals. Dietary education was thus one of the basic elements of child rearing – a cornerstone of parenting. Today, however, various food-related issues such as problems with food safety, dietary habits, and lifestyle-related diseases have emerged. Although food risks are ultimately borne by the consumer who eats the food, we seem to have gotten lax toward food risk management.

Essentially, doing everything yourself – from sensibly selecting the ingredients and carefully cooking them to giving the food to your children – is crucial. These days, however, children as well as parents are rushed off their feet, which is why schools and local communities are now starting to work together to expand dietary education activities.

Some of the dietary habits of today’s children cited as problems are: “lone meals” (eating alone), “individual meals” (family members all eating different things), “fixed meals” (only eating one’s favorite things), “small meals” (only ever eating small meals and getting thin as a result), “flour meals” (meals based on food made from flour), and “rich meals” (processed food and food with strong flavorings).

Leftover Food

As the people of ancient Japan had to kill other living beings in order to live themselves, they felt they should always eat their food with a feeling of gratitude. This way of thinking is also the origin of the Japanese custom of saying “Itadakimasu” (I humbly receive) before eating. These days, however, this attitude to food is beginning to get weaker. Japan today is a major leftover food nation. About 18 million tons of foodstuffs are scrapped each year, of which 60 percent is garbage from domestic households. When garbage that cannot be eaten is excluded, that leaves around 3.38 million tons of food that was either leftover or thrown out untouched.

Improving Dietary Habits

Japan is apparently “the 5th healthiest country in the world.” That was the result of “The world’s healthiest country ranking” announced by U.S. information services provider Bloomberg in August 2008. Japan, which is known as a country of longevity, also boasted the world’s highest average lifespan of 83 years. Although Japan’s rank dropped in this year’s survey, which was partly affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan is still in the leading group of countries on longevity.

Recently, however, obesity is increasing and the number of diabetes sufferers is on the rise. According to a survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, obesity trends among children have risen across the board for all ages from six to 14 in the last 30 years. The rising trend in the number of diabetes sufferers across the world, including Japan, cannot be ignored. According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), 371 million people worldwide currently have diabetes, and this number is expected to rise to 552 million in the next 20 years. Even so, according to OECD Health Data for 2012, Japan still ranks lowest of the 34 countries surveyed on obesity levels (incidentally, the U.S. ranks top). Although Japan’s culture of dietary education has gotten weaker in the present day, it is surely one of the factors behind this result.

Dietary Education in Japan

Dietary education is fundamental for living and should form the basis for intellectual, moral, and physical education. Dietary education develops individuals who are knowledgeable about diet and have the ability to make the right dietary choices, and are thus able to put healthy living into practice.

There are three specific points to dietary education:

① To cultivate the ability to choose food and manage food safety

Which foods can be eaten with peace of mind? Which are safe/dangerous/healthy?

② To pass on the necessities

Discipline and manners, the significance of meals/the dining table, family time

③ To consider food globally

Food supply problems, self-sufficiency rates, local production and consumption, protecting specialty products and producers, environmental problems, population problems

NPO groups such as Nihon Shokuiku Instructor Kyokai (the Japanese Dietary Education Instruction Association) are promoting this kind of dietary education and advocate making the dining table an enriching experience that draws the family together. Nihon Shokuiku also trains and accredits instructors who can correctly advise on dietary education, with qualifications ranging from level four to level one. There are currently around 500 people in Japan who hold the level one qualification.

Japanese children listening about vegetables in season
Japanese children listening about vegetables in season

In order to actively promote the study of dietary education, the government established the Fundamental Law of Dietary Education in 2005. Elements incorporated in the law include the roles of parents, guardians, and educators in children’s dietary education, the passing down of traditional food culture, contributors to food self-sufficiency, and the role of dietary education in preserving food safety. Originally, the format of Japanese meals was an easy-to-understand combination of “one soup, three dishes.” An arrangement of staple food (rice etc.) plus main dish (fish etc.) and two side dishes (vegetables) provided a simple way of achieving nutritional balance. The soup was typically miso soup containing ingredients such as vegetables, seaweed, or tofu and also provided nutrition readily. As Japan is increasingly forgetting these types of good traditional food habits, it is hoped dietary education will fulfill a major role.

School Lunch Is Education

Adachi City in Tokyo is actively reviewing the lunches provided at its schools, running a project entitled “Delicious School Lunches” that has become a hot topic and brought dietary education back into the spotlight. Schools in Adachi City are serving lunches to their pupils that wouldn’t look out of place even in restaurants.

The idea for this “Delicious School Lunches” project came from the Adachi City mayor. The city mayor previously served as a councilor in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, working on environmental issues. That was when he realized the large amount of school lunch that was going to waste. Believing that making “delicious school lunches” would reduce the amount of waste and provide children with better nutrition, he made the pledge “zero leftovers” part of his election manifesto. Following the election, he worked to ensure that the lunches provided in Adachi ward schools really were delicious and nutritionally balanced, and that via dietary education elementary school children were able to look after their health themselves.

“Delicious School Lunches” Goes on Sale As a Recipe Book

School lunch menu at Restaurant Pygargue in the Adachi City Hall, Tokyo
School lunch menu at Restaurant Pygargue in the Adachi City Hall, Tokyo

Once the schools started providing “delicious school lunches,” they began to receive requests for the recipes from parents and guardians. With that, instructions for making school lunch menus as recommended by elementary schools in Adachi City were uploaded to the ward website. This came to the attention of a certain publishing company, which started publishing a recipe book in July 2011. The book became a best-seller, with a cumulative total of 77,000 copies sold. What’s more, the media exposure made Adachi City’s school lunches famous nationwide.

In order that ordinary people could also eat the “delicious school lunches,” the restaurant in the Adachi City office building started serving lunches published in the book for 550 yen ($5.50) on weekdays, with the menu changing every month. The lunches, limited to 30 per day, are particularly popular with senior citizens and soon sell out. 

Why the Need for “Delicious School Lunches”?

The “Delicious School Lunch” project is not just about providing great taste and a spot of luxury. It also aims to broaden the minds of those who eat the lunches and cultivate a sense of gratitude to the bounties of nature and to the numerous people involved in the school lunch process such as farmers and cooks. To that end, Adachi City was the first in Tokyo to start outsourcing school lunch provision. As of April 2013, each of Adachi City’s 70 elementary schools (31,000 students) and 37 junior high schools (14,000 students) has its own preparation methods (preparation work is outsourced), its own menu, and even purchases ingredients separately. This way, each school operates its own school lunches and the children can eat hot food while it is still hot and chilled food that is still cold.

Teaching children basic nutritional knowledge such as nutrients that are vital for the body via their school lunches, and thus enabling them to make the right food choices themselves, is also considered important.

To summarize, the “Delicious School Lunch” project aims to realize…

  • Zest for living, prevention of lifestyle-related diseases (understand and choose foods that are important for the body)
  • Sense of gratitude (to nature’s blessings and to those who make the food)
  • Fulfilling school lunch time (enjoy lunch time, eat with enthusiasm)
  • Zero leftovers (reduce wastage)

…All via the medium of school lunches. In Adachi City’s case, a specialist dietary education promotion team has even been formed to encourage understanding of the importance of dietary education.

Changes in Food Wastage (staples, main courses, side dishes) in Adachi City, Tokyo
Changes in Food Wastage (staples, main courses, side dishes) in Adachi City, Tokyo
The Four Attributes of Delicious School Dinners in Tokyo, Japan
The Four Attributes of Delicious School Dinners in Tokyo, Japan
Structure of Delicious School Lunch Promotional Operations
Structure of Delicious School Lunch Promotional Operations

Efforts Being Made Toward Delicious School Lunches

The school lunch division of the Adachi City education research association is carrying out research into school lunch-related matters. For teachers responsible for school lunch, this research focuses on instructing children about school lunch, while nutritionists are pressing ahead with research into matters such as understanding the content of school lunches and the nutrition children can get from them, how to handle menus and ingredients, hygiene instruction, health management, and food environment.

The children also look forward to “Select school lunch,” which happens once a month. On this day, children can choose from a menu of two items, so each school is able to provide lunches with a content and format unique to that school.

It is also said that nutritionists are being creative with the names of the dishes, which you might expect to see in restaurant menus, in order that the children will eat them.

Adachi City has also put together a “Delicious School Lunch Guide” (below), which provides lists of recipes, themes, and goals for each school grade in every school. Alongside this, Adachi is trying to raise interest in school lunches via activities such as mini school expeditions to lunch kitchens and so on where children can interact with people connected to their school lunches. Every day, the children give a breakdown of the school lunch menu over the school public address system and thus widen understanding of the ingredients.

Fostering a Sense of Gratitude to the People Who Make Our Food

The award ceremony of School Lunch Menu Competition
The award ceremony of School Lunch Menu Competition

Children in Adachi City are getting hands-on experience at planting and harvesting rice in the City’s partner city of Uonuma in Niigata Prefecture as a means of understanding for themselves how their food is made.

As one of the teachers explains, “Junior high first grade students stay at a hostel and actually experience harvesting rice and such, but the interaction with the local people there and getting up early to start work really seem to be valuable experiences for the kids.” This kind of farming experience helps the students develop a sense of gratitude to their food and food producers. The precious rice that the children grew themselves is served at lunch at all junior high schools in Adachi ward.

Adachi City is also famous for being a komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) producing area. Local farmers deliver their produce directly to the schools and, as they do so, also explain to the children about the characteristics of komatsuna, how to grow it, and more. This also gives the children a chance to learn about the meaning of local production and consumption. Sometimes the children even get to visit the farms and experience operating the farming equipment.

There is also a program in which the children think about school lunch menus themselves. The program operates a “School lunch menu competition” aimed at junior high students to encourage greater interest in school lunch and the importance of food. The theme changes every year. In 2012, there were 1,461 entries featuring the locally produced ingredient komatsuna, of which 20 were awarded prizes such as the City Mayor’s Award.

Adachi City’s approach to school lunch has also made waves overseas. It was featured in the Washington Post in January 2013, while in June, members of the Malaysian Nutritionists Society visited Adachi City to learn about dietary education. This year, Adachi City plans to run a major project on “Eating starts with veggies,” which promotes eating vegetables in order to maintain health, and to press on with dietary education instruction especially about the importance of vegetables, including the vegetables in school lunch.

Related article: The History of Japan's School Lunch

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