December 17, 2015

Talking Japanese School Lunches on Heritage Radio Network

At Heritage Radio Network's East Williamsburg, Brooklyn studios.
Earlier this week, I had the fun experience of being a guest on host Laura Stanley's Heritage Radio show and podcast "Inside School Food," along with Japanese documentary filmmaker Atsuko Quirk. Laura does a great job covering the nuances of the topic, and I recommend it to you. The school lunch plate, her show demonstrates, is where our beliefs about food justice, public health, childhood nutrition and education and sustainability all converge.

Laura occasionally widens her focus on the American school lunch to examine the noontime repast of kids around the world. On our visit the show, the topic was the Japanese school lunch. Atsuko spoke about the making of her wonderful film titled School Lunch in Japan: It's Not Just About Eating! I added my two cents by describing the delightful experience of dropping in on a fifth-grade school lunch at Sanya Elementary School in Tokyo (part of a Foreign Press Center Japan fellowship tour earlier this year focusing on food, nutrition and Japanese cuisine).

Lunch at Sanya Elementary School, Tokyo.

In sanitary white coats, caps and masks, Sanya
fifth graders bring lunch food from kitchen to class. 

Atsuko decided she needed to introduce the Japanese school lunch to westerners after visiting her child's elementary public school lunchroom in New York City. She was appalled at what she saw: chicken nuggets strewn across the floor, indiscriminate food waste, zero clean-up effort on the part of of students, no discernable recycling measures and worst of all, a lack of gratitude toward the cafeteria lunch ladies.

The lunch line; students serving their peers.

Miso soup week: student reports on regional styles,
illustrated with photos of what they made at home.
By contrast, what she depicts in her film, and what I saw at Sanya, was the midday class period when kids take the lead, hauling large pots of miso soup and accompany dishes from school kitchen to classroom on carts, setting up a buffet line, serving fellow students, listening to a description of where their lunchtime foods were sourced, and a mini history lesson on the traditions behind those foods. Student-led chants of appreciation and gratitude began and ended each meal. They even clean up after themselves, too, and at the end of the lunch period there are no leftovers!

On our visit to Sanya, we had our pants practically charmed off us by these adorable and enthusiastic kids, and were also suitably impressed with how the lunch period is handled. We learned that the Japanese government has been concerned in recent years at the rise in obesity and lifestyle-related diseases, thinness obsession among young women, the loss of traditional Japanese food culture and a series of food safety incidents that have highlighted an over-dependence on food from abroad.

The Sanya garden, tended by students, parents and community volunteers;
20 different kinds of vegetables are grown here.
The Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster of 2011 shook the entire country up, explained school principal Ryoichi Yamagishi, and underscored concerns about food safety and sustainability. "Everyone is more aware of the importance of life," he said, the food they eat and where it comes from and the need for energy self-sufficiency. Since the disaster, Yamagishi noted, Sanya has cut its electricity use by half.

Even before the earthquake disaster, though, the shokuiku (food and nutrition education) movement was gaining steam in Japan. The goal of shokuiku is to increase food and nutrition knowledge, food choice skills and healthy eating habits, not to mention its emphasis on gratitude, table etiquette and local food production. The government passed the Shokuiku Basic Act in 2005; in 2010, the law was amended to require that at least 30 percent of school lunch ingredients be sourced locally. Last year Sanya won the coveted designation of "Super Shokuiku" school for the excellence of its food and nutrition education program.

Another aspect of the shokuiku movement that America's school lunch lacks is the incorporation of nutrition education and food and cooking literacy into the class curriculum. There are now more than 5,000 nutrition educators working in Japanese schools. They offer nutrition presentations during lunchtime, weekend cooking workshops for parents and students, and provide counseling for issues such as picky eating.

Voting on future lunch entree choices.
The shokuiku curriculum is standardized. Second graders learn about local foods and practice simple knife skills and food preparation techniques. They have an obento (box lunch) assignment for which they must learn to make their own onigiri rice balls. In third and fourth grade they make their own tamagoyaki (egg omelet rolls) and by fifth and sixth grades, they are able to make their entire lunch.

Sanya also leases a rice field in the countryside, which students visit in the fall to help with planting and in the spring to assist in the harvest.

Giving thanks after eating. 
The day I visited, the menu included Fukagawa-meshi, a rice dish, kenchinjiru (miso soup with tofu and vegetables), kibinago (silver stripe round herrings) cooked in soy sauce, half of a Satsuma mandarin orange, and milk. A student announcer explained that the rice was a Tokyo-area specialty, traditionally made with clams, miso, burdock, carrot, garlic scapes and shiitake. "Twenty years ago there were many clams in Tokyo Bay," he explained, "but today they are mostly imported from elsewhere. The dish is a local specialty that was often served at Tokyo food stalls. Today's Fukagawa-meshi has clams in it, so please enjoy the Edomae (Tokyo style) flavors."

There's a lot to admire about Japanese school lunches, but Laura pointed out areas where the U.S. arguably does a better job: food and nutrition assistance for low-income students,  for example, done in an unobtrusive way that doesn't stigmatize recipients.

For more on school lunches, check out Cafeteria Culture, an amazing local not-for-profit organization Atsuko helps lead that has done much to make school lunches more sustainable.