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Thursday, April 10, 2003

MATTER OF COURSE

SCHOOL LUNCH GOES PRIVATE

Can our kids get a healthy meal for less?


Would you pay 2,500 yen for a simple lunch on a battered tin tray? Of course not. For that kind of money, you could get a three-course luncheon served on fine china. But believe it or not, 2,500 yen is the cost of the lunch my kid eats at school every day. It's no wonder so many local governments have turned to minkan itaku (outsourcing) to cut school lunch costs.

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My 8-year-old gets a freshly prepared hot lunch every day at the Japanese public elementary school he attends. Unlike his old school in the United States, where buying lunch was optional, he has to eat the kyushoku (school lunch). I don't view this as a problem because I hate packing lunches, and the meal at school is tasty and well-balanced. He gets rice-based meals three times a week, with bread or noodles served on the other days. Fish is on the menu at least once a week, and many of the fresh vegetables served daily are organically grown. Each child also gets a bottle of fresh milk every day.

Our school has a large, well-equipped kitchen staffed by a nutritionist and five kitchen workers. They prepare just about everything from scratch, starting work early in the morning to prepare the noon meal for about 375 students and teachers.

My contribution for lunch for my third-grader is 250 yen a day; the rest is covered by the ward. But the actual cost is more than 10 times that, according to school officials. Most of that is labor. Our kitchen workers are full-time employees of the ward. They work year-round, even during school vacations, but the kids only need lunch 190 days per year.

To bring down lunch costs, an increasing number of school districts throughout Japan are contracting with private firms, who have more flexibility in hiring, to send workers to prepare food on school premises. According to the most recent statistics from the Education Ministry, 11.5 percent of Japan's public schools outsource meal preparation for a total of 1.3 million students. Of the 23 wards in Tokyo, 18 contract with private companies for school lunch preparation.

Not surprisingly, some people are opposed to such outsourcing. The unions that represent kitchen workers are opposed. So are some school nutritionists' associations. Several citizens' lawsuits, still pending in the courts, charge that subcontracting school lunch preparation is an illegal use of public funds. More surprising to me is the fact that many parents also oppose outsourcing.

In the Tokyo ward in which I live, school officials are now studying the possibility of hiring a private firm to provide kitchen workers for our 30 public schools. They recently sent out to all parents a questionnaire about outsourcing school lunch preparation. About 1,000 questionnaires were returned, half of which were against outsourcing.

I decided to attend an iken o kiku kai ("meeting to hear opinions"). It rained hard that Saturday morning, but about 80 people turned up to sample a typical school lunch and tell school board officials what they thought.

The experience reminded me that I, as an American, have far lower expectations of school lunch than most Japanese. My kids rarely ate the lunch made available at their U.S. school because the food wasn't any good. Lunch was prepared the day before at a central kitchen and reheated. It was usually a high-fat food like hamburgers and hot dogs. Fresh fruit and vegetables were rare. That's not the kind of food I want my kids eating so I usually packed them a lunch.

In contrast, most Japanese parents are positive about kyushoku. They don't view the school lunch merely as a feeding program to fill kids' tummies; it is considered an integral part of the children's education. Parents expect the school lunch to provide children with a variety of wholesome foods so they learn about nutrition and how to make wise food choices.

Such goals are even laid out in the law that established the school lunch program, which states that the lunch should "foster good eating habits and correct understanding of the role of food in daily life"; "enrich school life and foster positive interaction at school"; "improve health and nutritional status"; and "provide instruction concerning the production, distribution and consumption of food."

Many of the parents who spoke at the meeting didn't trust private companies to turn out a lunch that could do all this. "I can't believe that a part-time worker is going to put love and care into cooking for my daughter," one mother said, shaking her head. Another was concerned about high turnover and inadequate training. "Our current kitchen staff is well-trained in food safety and hygiene, but I have no confidence in part-time workers sent from a private company. What if my child gets sick from something he eats at school?"

"Let's remember Sakai," a father sitting near me said quietly. Several parents nodded. They were referring to a terrible outbreak of food-borne illness that struck schools in Sakai City, near Osaka, in 1996. More than 6,000 schoolchildren became violently ill, and several died, after eating contaminated radish sprouts served in their school lunch.

But kitchen workers weren't to blame for that outbreak. And, in any case, they were full-time employees. That tragedy was germane to the discussion only because it shook the nation's confidence in the safety of the school lunch program. The officials assured us that the ward would continue to supervise sanitation and hygiene.

I have concerns about outsourcing, too, but I keep coming back to that 2,500 yen price tag. That's just too much for a school lunch. Schools that outsourced preparation have found they can serve a lunch of the same or better quality at less than half the previous cost.

Tokyo's Edogawa Ward, which started subcontracting school lunch preparation a year ago, says the switch saves them more than 10 million yen per school per year.

Will such savings be plowed back into education to enable class size to be reduced, or to pay for more computers in the classroom? If so, I'd say outsourcing school lunch is an idea worth chewing on.

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer. An earlier column by her on the subject of how school lunch is used as an educational tool appeared in The Japan Times on June 1, 2001 and can be accessed via the JT Web site, www.japantimes.co.jp


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