School lunches (kyushoku) in Japan are undoubtedly one-of-a-kind. The nationwide provision of school lunches at public schools throughout Japan began in the 1950s and has been a constant fixture in the lives of Japanese children ever since. Over the years, school lunches have changed with the times, adapting to the available resources and placing a stronger emphasis on nutritional balance to ensure the development of healthy children. While the meals served have since diversified, the underlying goals of the program remain unchanged.
Origin of School Lunches
Where it all first started...
When Tsuruoka City was still known as Tsuruoka Village in 1889, a kind Buddhist monk called Sato Reizan lived in Jōnenji Temple. Back in those days, many impoverished families were unable to send their children to school as they couldn’t afford the school fees or purchase study materials for their children. Wanting to provide education to all children, Reizan collaborated with other monks in the village to establish Chuai Elementary School, a new school in Daitokuji Temple. Here, all children were welcomed regardless of family background and financial situation. Required learning materials and school fees are covered by the school. Students only had to bring their own lunch boxes from home to eat at school during their lunch break. Classes were taught by local monks and doctors without any compensation.
Although the school in Daitokuji was burnt down in a fire in 1897, meals were still being provided to the children. Three years later in 1900, the monks established the Chuai Association, which sponsors lunch money and food for children from underprivileged families using funds received from religious mendicancy and donations. The success of the programme brought about more donations as people around the region started supporting their cause. At the same time, there was increased support from both the prefecture and the nation. Word spread about the success of the local school lunch program and before long, schools around the country decided to embrace the idea, launching their own school lunch programmes as well. The school lunch programme continued till 1945, when it was stopped due to food shortages after World War II.
Even after the war, food continued to be in short supply, and many children were left malnourished, resulting in stunted growth among youths. As part of Japan’s post-war recovery, the government issued a new school lunch policy for daily nutrition.
In 1947, approximately three million children nationwide began receiving school lunch, which included powdered non-fat milk donated from America. During the 1950s, school lunch programmes were extended around the country, and meals began incorporating bread made from wheat flour supplied by the America. By 1976, meals with warm, freshly cooked rice, a wider selection of foods, and fresh cow’s milk were served to school children.
The school lunch programme we are familiar with today has been implemented under the School Lunch Law, established in 1954. By encouraging students to have meals together with their classmates, school lunch became an important part of a child’s education, in which they could learn more about the importance of a balanced diet, their local food culture, and proper manners. In 2005, the Basic Act on Shokuiku (Food and Nutrition Education) was established, outlining the goals and provision for local and national support of activities to foster an understanding of a healthy diet and appreciation of food and food production. In addition, to enhance food education to school children, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology established the Diet and Nutrition Teacher System in 2007. Through these programmes, the proportion of children skipping breakfast has since decreased, and their quality of life has improved.
OVER THE YEARS
Today, a typical school lunch is nutritionally balanced, consisting of carbohydrates (rice, noodles, or bread), vegetables, protein, and milk. Desserts such as fresh fruits, pudding, jelly, and yoghurt are occasionally served. The menu is rotated regularly so that children are able to experience eating a wide variety of foods. Special holiday meals often include an extra special treat or a culturally relevant dish. Menus for school lunches change monthly with a main theme associated with each month.
In addition to providing children with a nutritionally balanced meal, school lunches also promote less picky eating habits as students are encouraged to try new foods. It also eliminates discrimination between children from different economic backgrounds as everyone eats the same food. Children are also encouraged to learn about responsibility: during lunch breaks, students that are assigned lunchtime roles will go to pick up the classes’ portions and serve them to the rest of the class. Lunch is typically the main time of the day where students are allowed to sit together with their friends and converse freely.
Currently, Tsuruoka City and its citizens are promoting the increased use of local ingredients for school lunches with the implementation of sustainable food resources (local production and consumption). Furthermore, in an effort to stimulate public interest and raise awareness on the importance of food, local agriculture, forestry, and fisheries through exchanges between farmers and youths, Tsuruoka began to provide “All Tsuruoka Produce School Lunch” every October and November. This initiative acts as a way for children to explore and learn where their food comes from, how it is produced, and how they are intricately connected to their environment. In doing so, children come to recognise the intrinsic bond between seasonal ingredients and natural changes that occur over the year, and also learn to appreciate their local produce even more.