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Michael Schauerte [Profile]


School lunch in Japan is about more than just providing kids with a nutritious and tasty meal; another aim is to foster healthy eating habits that will benefit them throughout life. An American editor at traveled to Hirayama Elementary School, on the western edge of Tokyo, to learn more about school lunch in Japan.

When I was growing up in the United States, my school lunch was a pretty simple and repetitive affair—revolving around French fries sharing a plate with some sort of meat between a bun. It tasted good enough to me at the time, but the “vegetable” I recall encountering most often (apart from potatoes) was tomato ketchup.

Over a decade ago, when I came to Japan to teach English at a junior high school in Nagano Prefecture, I encountered school lunches that were far more diverse and nutritional than the ones I had as a kid. For three years in Nagano I ate school lunch every day with my students, and this served as my introduction to Japanese food culture.

Now that my eldest daughter is an elementary school student, it is reassuring to know that she can enjoy a healthy lunch every day. When I get home from work I sometimes ask her what she had for lunch, which had never been a conversation starter at home when I was her age. My daughter’s description of lunch, with its surprising array of dishes, sometimes sounds like the fare at an upscale restaurant. The dishes are listed on a printout she receives from the head nutritionist at her school, along with all sorts of useful information on food and healthy eating habits.

Talking to my daughter, and thinking back on my experience in Nagano, raised my curiosity about what goes into creating school lunches in Japan. In particular, I wondered what the job of head nutritionist entails, exactly.

To find out more, I traveled to the western Tokyo suburb of Hino with some colleagues to visit Hirayama Elementary School, which has won recognition for its outstanding school lunch program.

A Flexible System

Although just a 40-minute train ride from Shinjuku, the city of Hino where Hirayama Elementary School is located is interspersed with vegetable fields and is not far from the Tama mountain range which borders the western edge of Tokyo.

After entering the school’s sparkling new facility we are greeted by Principal Igarashi Toshiko, who informs us during our chat that the school’s history stretches all the way back to the early Meiji Era (1868–1912). She then leads us to an area outside the school’s kitchen, where lunch preparations have been underway since around eight in the morning.

Students get a sneak peek at what’s on today’s menu by looking in on the kitchen preparations.

A glass partition separates the kitchen from the hallway outside, allowing students passing by to get a sneak peek of the day’s lunch and see for themselves how everything is being made. Today’s lunch features a vegetable and rice dish (gomoku gohan), fried tuna seasoned with a sweet and spicy sauce, a clear soup (sumashijiru), and a side dish of the leafy vegetable komatsuna served with a sesame dressing (goma-ae)—along the small bottle of milk that accompanies each school lunch. The menu is a good example of how schools try to familiarize students with as many traditional Japanese dishes as possible.

The head nutritionist, Kawaguchi Yoshie, has a moment to chat with us now that the early-morning task of chopping and preparing the ingredients has been completed. Later we are joined by four men who work with her in the kitchen to make school lunch. Every day they are all kept quite busy, preparing lunch for over 500 people, and then cleaning up afterwards and discussing the next day’s meal.

Kawaguchi Yoshie, the head nutritionist, makes sure the flavor of the soup is just right.

The first thing I ask Kawaguchi is what sort of regulations or requirements she has to follow when creating school lunches. She tells me that the Board of Education sets a general benchmark of 650 calories for each meal, and that the city of Hino sets a per-meal cost target of ¥282. Her task is to then come up with menu items that not only meet the targets but are also nutritionally well-balanced and satisfy students’ taste buds.

The calorie and protein content for each day’s lunch is listed on a printout out of the two-week menu students receive, along with pointers on healthy eating habits and other tips. And Kawaguchi has to issue a report to the Board of Education providing details on the lunches prepared.

The temperature of the fried tuna is carefully checked to ensure it is properly cooked.

Strict regulations are also in place for sanitation, as I could see from the kitchen staff’s masks and clothing, and from the fact that no one else is allowed to enter the kitchen. In addition, periodic inspections are made of each school’s kitchen facilities to verify that sanitation standards are being met, and all vegetables must be cooked to prevent outbreaks of E. coli bacteria.

What impresses me most, listening to Kawaguchi’s explanation of the school-lunch system, is that schools have a considerable degree of leeway when it comes to creating lunches as long as they meet the strict nutrition and sanitation requirements. This freedom to make choices extends to the procurement of ingredients. Hirayama Elementary School, for instance, has decided to obtain 25% of all vegetables from local farmers, as a way of ensuring freshness and strengthening ties between the school and the local community.

Elementary school students, of course, can be finicky when it comes to certain vegetables. Kawaguchi says that carrots and green peppers, in particular, tend to be unpopular. One strategy she adopts is to finely chop such vegetables so they can be slipped in under the radar, so to speak. This approach succeeded marvelously in the case of a dish called “rainbow pilaf,” which was popular among Hirayama students despite containing both carrots and green peppers.

The hands-down favorite dish among the students, according to the kitchen staff, is Japanese curry with rice. But the flavor varies quite a bit, they tell me, depending on who happens to be in charge of making it on a particular day. Each of the four men working in the kitchen has his own unique way of preparing this dish; and the ingredients used vary depending on what vegetables are in season.

These sorts of creative, homemade touches really set Japanese school lunches apart from a bland, mass-production approach.

  • [2011.10.17]

Translator and editor (and occasional writer), Graduated from Kenyon College in 1991 with a degree in French literature. Has lived in Japan since arriving in 1995 on the JET Program. Received a master’s degree in social science from Hitotsubashi University in 2001. After stints at the Society for Testing English Proficiency (EIKEN) and a translation agency, joined Japan Echo Inc. in 2010.

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