In Japan, school lunch means a regular meal, not one that harms your health. The food is grown locally and almost never frozen. There's no mystery in front of the meat. From time to time, parents even call up with an unusual question: Can they get the recipes?
“Parents hear their kids talking about what they had for lunch,” said Tatsuji Shino, the principal at Umejima Elementary School in Tokyo, “and kids ask them to re-create the meals at home.”
In the United States, where obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades, new legislation championed by first lady Michelle Obama has pushed schools to debut menus with controversial calorie restrictions. But even the healthiest choices are generally provided by large agri-food companies, cooked off site, frozen and then reheated, and forced to compete in cafeterias with all things fried, salty and sweet.
Schools in Japan, by contrast, give children the sort of food they'd get at home, not at a stadium. The meals are often made from scratch. They're balanced but hearty, heavy on rice and vegetables, fish and soups. The meals haven't changed much in four decades.
Mealtime is a scene of communal duty: In both elementary and middle schools, students don white coats and caps and serve their classmates. Children eat in their classrooms. They get identical meals, and if they leave food untouched, they are out of luck: Their schools have no vending machines. Barring dietary restrictions, children in most districts can't bring food to school, either, until they reach high school.
Japan's system has an envious payoff — its kids are relatively healthy. According to government data, Japan's child obesity rate, always among the world's lowest, has declined for each of the past six years, a period during which the country has expanded its dietary education program.
Japan does struggle with childhood and adolescent eating disorders, and government data show a rise in the number of extremely skinny children. But there is virtually no malnutrition resulting from poverty, and the Japanese live on average to 83, longer than any other population, according to the World Health Organization.
When it comes to food, Japan has some deeply ingrained advantages. Children are taught to eat what they are served, meaning they are prone to accept, rather than revolt against, the food on their plates. But Japan also invests heavily in cultivating this mindset. Most schools employ nutritionists who, among other tasks, work with children who are picky or unhealthy eaters.
Though Japan's central government sets basic nutritional guidelines, regulation is minimal. Not every meal has to meet precise caloric guidelines. At many schools, a nutritionist draws up the recipes — no bureaucratic interference. Central government officials say they have ultimate authority to step in if schools are serving unhealthy food, but they can't think of any examples where that actually happened.
Funding for lunches is handled locally, too: Municipalities pay for labor costs, but parents, billed monthly, pay for the ingredients, about $3 per meal, with reduced and free options for poorer families. Though Japanese towns face their own budget pressures and many are in debt, local authorities have so far treated school lunch as a priority.
Notable is what's lacking: You don't see low-fat options. You don't see dessert, other than fruit and yogurt. You occasionally see fried food, but in stark moderation. On a recent day at Umejima, kids were served the Japanese version of fried chicken, known as karaage. Each child was allowed one nugget.
Officials at Adachi Ward, in northern Tokyo, say they run a “fairly standard” school lunch program in the ward's 71 elementary schools and 37 middle schools. And because this is food-obsessed Japan, those standard meals are restaurant-worthy; in fact, the ward publishes a full-color cookbook based on its best school meals.
District officials allow themselves to brag for just one reason, their success in cutting food waste to 5 percent. This follows the “Oishii Kyushoku,” or “Delicious School Lunch,” program they created five years ago to get kids more interested in what they were eating.
At Umejima, one of Adachi Ward's schools, the hallway walls look like the pages of Bon Appetit magazine. Hand drawings of healthy lunches dreamed up by students hang near the principal's office. There are charts of beans and spices. Then there's the real food, prepared every morning, for 760 students. “Everything is cooked on site,” school nutritionist Kimii Fujii said. “We even make our own broth.”
Japanese food, contrary to the common perception, isn't automatically healthy; it includes crispy chicken, rich bowls of salty ramen with pork belly and battered and deep-fried tempura. But, like most cuisines, it can be healthy.
Japan began emphasizing healthy food for its students in the aftermath of World War II, when the government prioritized education and health as a way to catch up to the modernized West. For a decade after the war, school lunch food was still coming from international donations. But by the 1970s, the school meal came to look much like the modern-day standard. These days, ethnic food (such as Korean or Italian) is mixed in once or twice per week.
Japanese government officials say no other country has copied Japan's system of made-from-scratch meals eaten in classrooms, or even tried to.
Masahiro Oji, a government director of school health education at the Education Ministry, said he attended an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation workshop in Moscow on school lunch programs last year. Japan sent members of its education ministry; most nations sent members from their agriculture or farm ministries.
“Japan's standpoint is that school lunches are a part of education,” Oji said, “not a break from it.”
Compare what two elementary schools on opposite sides of the Pacific offer. This American menu has arguably begun following a healthier lead.
• Rice mixed with Kiriboshi daikon dried radish strips
• Japanese-style omelet (with sauteed minced chicken and chopped vegetables)
• Ohitashi (boiled Japanese mustard spinach, carrot, hakusai cabbage and other vegetables in dashi soup and soy sauce topped with toasted sesame seeds)
• Miso soup (with wakame seaweed, potato and onion)
• Submarine sandwich (1 ounce turkey; 0.5 ounce low-fat cheese) on whole- wheat roll
• Refried beans (1⁄2 cup)
• Jicama (1⁄4 cup)
• Green pepper strips (1⁄4 cup)
• Cantaloupe wedges, raw (1⁄2 cup)
• Skim milk (8 ounce)
• Mustard (9 grams)
• Reduced-fat mayonnaise (1 ounce)
• Low-fat ranch dip (1 ounce)
Sources: USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Umejima Elementary School in Tokyo