TOTTORI – For postwar generations of Japanese who grew up eating school lunches in their classrooms at public elementary and junior high schools, the scene in the village of Tomari, Tottori Prefecture, may come as a surprise.
Today, the 188 children who attend Tomari Elementary School eat their meals in a lunchroom adjacent to the school building situated atop a low hill in the village.
The lunchroom is pleasantly decorated with a Japanese cypress motif, and boasts a commanding view of gentle mountain ranges and the Japan Sea through the windows lining the walls.
Tomari is just one of the many public schools making changes in their meal programs.
The number of schools with separate dining rooms is rising and menus featuring locally grown and produced foods are becoming increasingly common.
Educational experts have been re-examining the school lunch system, particularly its role as a “food education” tool, amid reports that dietary habits in Japanese households are deteriorating, as more people are skipping breakfast and eating unhealthy foods that make them overweight.
Tottori Prefecture is noted for its flatfish, and for producing high-quality “nashi” (pear-apples).
The menu at Tomari school features “Sakura zushi,” sushi rice blended with cherry petals, and “Noppeijiru,” soup made of chicken and vegetables.
Some of the children said the rice served at school tasted better than what they ate at home. Others were pleased by the numerous choices the menu offers.
“We use seasonal foodstuffs from local suppliers, including agricultural cooperatives, and try to cook them lightly seasoned to utilize the palatable quality of the foodstuffs,” school dietitian Kyoko Ushio said.
Yoshikazu Nakabayashi, the school principal, boasted that the lunchroom hardly ever has leftovers.
He said the school feels the meal program should allow children to make their own choices on what they want to eat, rather than simply expecting them to eat whatever is put before them.
Each month, a different class is assigned the task of creating a “recommended menu” for the month.
The students prepare the menu using computers to calculate the nutritional value of foods, a unit price per meal and the cooking staff’s workload. Ushio is on hand to answer questions and give advice.
At a class meeting, a boy proudly displayed a picture showing the menu his class had prepared. Miso soup with lots of pork, vegetables and tofu to give the children strength for the upcoming field day activities.
The students also enjoy putting together smorgasbord “cafeteria meals” about three times a year. With nutritional balance in mind, they select large dishes of meat, fish, salads and dessert.
The children also keep meal record cards, in which they write down which foods they chose from the menu that day.
It is evaluated and returned by the kitchen staff with comments on their choices, such as “the meal did not include enough vegetable fiber.”
Nakabayashi said the school sometimes prepares rice dumplings covered with sweet bean paste using grain grown by the students. He said he hopes they will take the good eating habits they learn at school with them when they leave.
Officials have said the quality and variety of school lunches, which are synonymous with the postwar education system, improved consistently after rice — the nation’s long-rationed staple food item — was introduced in 1976.
More recently, cases of schools contracting with local farmers for regional foods have increased dramatically, along with the number of schools with separate dining halls such as Tomari Elementary.
“Food education at home is becoming difficult at a time when an increasing number of children skip breakfast, are overweight or suffering lifestyle-related illnesses,” said Katsumi Noda, leader of a citizens’ group that monitors meal programs in public schools.
While Noda feels the role of the school lunch program will increase in the future, the recent practice of commissioning school meals to catering businesses is growing.
According to a survey conducted in fiscal 1999 by the then Education Ministry, the percentage of public elementary and junior high schools using catering services for lunch programs rose 0.9 percentage points to 9.2 percent.
At the same time, the percentage of part-time kitchen personnel continues to rise, according to the ministry.
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