In 2011, U.S. legislators blocked a proposal to improve the nutritional quality of the nation’s school lunches. The proposed changes included more fruits and vegetables, and an end to the absurdity of permitting tomato paste on pizzas to be classified as a vegetable.
As a result, children raised in public schools in the wealthiest nation on earth feast on fried, salty meals that are delivered frozen and pre-cooked off site, courtesy of large agri-food companies.
In contrast, public schools in France provide their children five course lunches which include dishes such as bouillabaisse, mussels and escargot.
And schools in Japan supply children with meals that are often made from scratch with food that is grown locally and almost never frozen.
According to Chico Harlan with the Washington Post, Japan takes seriously both its food and its health; as a result, its school lunches are a point of national pride.
The school meals in Japan are balanced, heavy on rice and vegetables, fish and soups. “Everything is cooked on site,” school nutritionist Kimii Fujii said. “We even make our own broth.”
Harlan explains that students serve their classmates, eat in their classrooms, and receive identical meals. In Japan, schools have no vending machines, and in most districts, children can’t bring food to school until they reach high school.
Japanese children are taught to eat what they are served, and work hard to promote that mind-set, so a lot less food is wasted, unlike in U.S. schools where food waste is rampant.
“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.”
There is virtually no malnutrition resulting from poverty, adds Harlan, and Japan’s children will live to be an average to 83 years, longer than those in any other country, according to the World Health Organization.
Japan’s central government sets basic nutritional guidelines, but regulation is minimal. There are no caloric guidelines, and 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.”
Harlan says 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. Many older Japanese remember postwar school meals of powdered skim milk, bread and daikon radish.”
By the 1970s, Japan’s school meals evolved into the same nutritious lunches they serve today.