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Friday, June 1, 2001



Making lunch a learning experience

At Japanese elementary schools, learning goes on right through the lunch hour. Children may not realize a lesson is in progress because the pencils and books have been stowed away, but lunchtime is the official time for learning about food and nutrition.

All public elementary schools in Japan provide a hot lunch, called gakko kyushoku, which everyone is expected to eat. Students can't go home for the noon meal or bring their own lunch to school. The school deducts a monthly lunch fee from parents' bank accounts, currently 3,750 yen to 4,450 yen, or about 230 yen to 270 yen per meal. (The fee goes up as children get older and get more food.)

This meal is the basis for lunchtime instruction, which is why Japanese educators sometimes speak of school lunch as "a living textbook." The teacher stays with the class and eats the same lunch, talking to the children about nutrition, good eating habits and the foods in that day's meal. The lunchtime lesson is called kyushoku shido and is part of the school curriculum.

At most schools, lunch is eaten in the classroom. The students themselves serve the meal and clean up afterward. Surprisingly, many kids love being kyushoku toban (on lunch duty). They have the privilege of wearing a nifty white chef's uniform (which their parents have the privilege of washing and ironing at the end of the week). They get to go to the kitchen and bring the food back to the classroom.

And they stand by the trolley and dole out the food to their classmates, which for some students is a welcome taste of power. ("Can I please have a bigger serving of curry rice? Come on, Matsui-kun. Please, can I?")

When everyone has been served, students make a little bow toward their food and say words of thanks in unison ("Itadakimasu!"). At the end of the meal, students say "Gochisosama deshita" ("Thank you for the food," or literally, "It was a feast"). This is one way the school teaches children to feel grateful for their food.

School lunches in Japan are said to date back to 1889, when a private school in Yamagata Prefecture first offered needy students a meal of rice balls, grilled fish and pickles. But the current school lunch program got its start, with support from the United States and UNICEF, as a national feeding program during the famine after World War II.

Many Japanese children got their first taste of milk in 1947, when donated nonfat powdered milk was introduced into the school lunch program. A year later, when the U.S. began to donate wheat, bread became the main source of carbohydrates in Japan's school lunch program. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that rice was reintroduced into school lunches with a government subsidy to offset the higher cost.

These days, on average, schools serve Western-style foods such as sandwiches and burgers just two days a week.

The rest of the time, in a conscious effort to encourage children to eat the traditional Japanese diet, schools serve rice-based meals. Milk is still served everyday, but now it is fresh bottled milk.

Perhaps because food was so precious when the program started, students had to eat everything on their tray. This continued until just a few years ago. Many of today's adults can tell you stories of crying as they choked down a hated food or of not being allowed to go to recess until they finished every last bite.

These days, schools aren't supposed to force kids to finish their lunches. Children have control over portion size because schools want students to learn how to choose a balanced diet and the right amount of food for their needs.

But fussy eaters are discouraged in Japan, so teachers still push children to at least taste everything.

To help forge a link between meals at home and meals at school, the school sends home a monthly menu for school lunch. The detailed menu lists not only what will be served, but also calories, main ingredients and special notes, such as what is in season or the health effects of a certain food. Many parents use the menu to make sure they don't serve the same foods at dinner.

It's interesting to ask Japanese adults about their memories of kyushoku. Many will speak nostalgically about favorite menu items such as a deep-fried bread called agepan.

Although whale meat hasn't been served in school lunches for years, many adults fondly remember the whale-meat burgers they got at school. Or kujira no tatsuta-age, for which strips of whale meat were seasoned with ginger and fried.

Like many schools, my children's school holds an annual kyushoku shishokukai (school lunch tasting) so parents can sample a typical meal and hear about the school lunch program. I went to the tasting last year and was pleasantly surprised. The food was tasty, pleasing to the eye and included plenty of fresh vegetables.

Many children love the school lunch and think it's better than the food at home. I'd rather not hold my own cooking up to public scrutiny, but I will say I'd be happy to eat the school lunch everyday, particularly at that price. After all, when was the last time you got a tasty, nutritious hot meal in Japan for just 270 yen?

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.

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