Do efforts to feed students help improve their performance in school? Mick Mulvaney, director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, grabbed headlines Thursday when he argued in favor of cutting federal funds to programs that provide food to poor students. His justification: There’s “no demonstrable evidence” that the programs help them do better in school.
Tell that to Japan, where more than 10 million kids receive delicious, fresh food every school day, in large part because the country considers lunch part of a child’s education, not a break from school. What students there receive is a far cry from the processed, reheated meals you’d find in American schools. Picture a tray filled with fish with pear sauce, mashed potatoes, and vegetable soup. The ingredients come from local farmers or the school’s farm, and a team of cooks made the dishes that morning.
Elementary and junior high school students eat lunch in their classroom, where they learn about nutrition and Japan’s food history and culture. They also take turns serving the meal to each other, cleaning up, and recycling. As government school lunch experts Nobuko Tanaka and Miki Miyoshi write, this helps children acquire “a sense of gratitude” and “spirit to appreciate foods and social manners.”
In the late 19th century, some Japanese schools began to provide lunches for poor children. But it wasn’t until after WWII, with the School Lunch Act of 1954, that school lunch became a nationwide program. In the years following the war Japanese school lunches consisted largely of U.S. and other international donations—lots of powdered skim milk and bread. By the 1970s the meal had become much like what kids eat today. Soups, vegetables, fish, and rice are common.
While municipalities pay for the labor it takes to make the lunches, parents pay for the food, about $2.50 per meal. Reduced or free lunches are available for those in need. Some children depend on school lunch for their main meal; around 16 percent of two-parent households in Japan aren’t able to supply enough food for their children, and this figure increases to 32 percent for single-parent households. An education official from Fukuoka, in southern Japan, told Japan Today, “There are many elementary and junior high kids who depend on school lunches, who come back from summer break looking very thin.”
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.
Japan’s school lunch program has also no doubt contributed to the country’s low global rate of obesity. And Japan’s life expectancy, at 85, is one of the world’s highest. In contrast, the U.S. has a high obesity rate and a lower life expectancy of 79.8.
The likes of Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama have tried to improve American school lunch. The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by Obama, mandated larger portions of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and limited calories. Studies showed some positive effects, though the legislation is now under threat by lobbyists looking to capitalize on the new administration’s likely sympathetic stance on their calls to allow more sodium and reduce whole grains in school food.
As U.S. politicians and local leaders debate these issues, they might do well to consider the Japanese system. Where else do reverence and nostalgia for healthy school meals spur a restaurant to serve up the fare? One municipality in northern Tokyo even publishes a cookbook of its greatest school lunch hits. And parents call up their children’s schools for recipes.
“[They] hear their kids talking about what they had for lunch,” a Tokyo principal told The Washington Post. “Kids ask them to re-create the meals at home.”