Japan takes seriously both its food and its health and, as a result, its school lunches are a point of national pride — not a source of dismay. As other countries, including the United States, struggle to design school meals that are healthy, tasty and affordable, Japan has all but solved the puzzle, using a system that officials here describe as utterly common sense.
In the United States, where obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades, new legislation championed by 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. Japan’s children will live on average to 83, longer than those in any other country, 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 mind-set. 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 surprisingly 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.