Safe, healthy, tasty. That’s the goal of “kyushoku” (school lunches) that are distributed nationwide.

Although the government originally introduced school lunches to help specific children mired in poverty, they spread to schools nationwide after World War II in order to improve health and to teach students about nutrients, eating properly, and appreciating food and life.

As eating habits rapidly change, many children nowadays skip breakfast and their diet tends to be unbalanced.

To counter this, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology established the Food Education Law in 2005 to put further emphasis on teaching children the importance of a well-balanced diet — and school lunches have been a way to achieve this goal,according to the ministry.

Following are basic questions and answers about school lunches:

When did school lunches become institutionalized and who covers the costs?

School lunches started to be distributed to elementary schools and junior high schools nationwide based on the 1954 School Lunch Law.

The law obliges both public and private elementary and junior high schools to strive to provide student lunches.

The cost of the ingredients is now shouldered by parents, but other costs, including for cooking facilities and hiring dietitians, are covered by local governments.

School lunches usually include milk, a main dish with bread or rice, a side dish and sometimes dessert.

How many school lunches are served?

A 2006 survey by the education ministry found 10.19 million elementary and junior high school students were served school lunches. They are available at 99.2 percent of public and private elementary schools and 85.8 percent of junior high schools.

Where and when did school lunches originate and how did they develop?

According to the education ministry, school lunches started in 1889 in Yamagata Prefecture when Buddhist monks offered free meals to poverty-stricken children. In 1923, the government officially started distributing school lunches to help underprivileged children.

School lunches were discontinued during the war due to a food shortage, but the government restored them in 1947 for all children in the Kanto region to improve their health, according to the book “Gakko Kyushoku o Kangaeru” (“Examination of School Lunches”).

Most Japanese, however, were still in poverty and school lunches at that time mainly included milk provided by the U.S. or miso soup.

From 1950 to 1966, bread was distributed, manufactured from flour imported from the U.S.

Rice debuted in school lunches in 1967.

School lunches made their nationwide appearance in 1951.

What is the average monthly fee for school lunches?

According to the education ministry, the average is ¥3,968 at elementary schools and ¥4,529 at junior high schools.

Who supervises the menus and how are they planned?

Dietitians hired by local governments usually decide the lunches for an average of four schools. They plan the menu by calculating kids’ daily calorie and nutritional needs. Because Japanese children often have low levels of calcium intake, school lunches are designed to offset this deficiency.

Who serves the lunches?

Student groups in each class are assigned to serve lunches to their classmates. They wear white hats, aprons and masks to maintain hygiene.

This is to teach students how to place bowls and plates properly, and how to serve food in equal portions, said an official of Enhancement of School Health Education at the education ministry.

Do students have a selection to pick from?

Basically no, except they will not have to consume items they may be allergic to. Students are otherwise encouraged to eat everything because the lunches are considered nutritionally balanced.

Are all school lunches uniform in their fare?

No. Especially after the government decided to emphasize food education through school lunches, regions have been encouraged to include locally grown items in their lunch menu to teach students about how and where their food is grown.

For example, school meals in Fukuoka, which is famous for “mentaiko” (marinated cod roe), include the spicy eggs. Other local dishes include “chikuzen-ni” (chicken, burdock and lotus root boiled in soup stock) and “gisuke-ni” (small fish boiled with sugar, soy sauce and sweet sake).

In Hokkaido, which is known for its wide variety of seafood, dishes include “ishikari-jiru” (soup with salmon, tofu, devil’s tongue, carrots and Chinese cabbage), and “sake no chan chan yaki” (grilled salmon with vegetables in tin foil).

Schools in Wakayama Prefecture also serve controversial whale meat.

What are some problems facing the school lunch system?

One is parents who do not pay. According to a survey conducted by the education ministry, the parents of 98,993 students failed to pay lunch fees in fiscal 2005, or about 1 percent of kids served school lunches nationwide.

Some 60 percent of elementary and junior high schools said in the survey that parents who do not pay the fees lack a sense of responsibility and morals.

“This is probably the new tendency for why parents do not pay the lunch fee, while it was mainly financial reasons before,” the ministry official said.

That said, last year some local governments, including Kanagawa Prefecture, decided to offer financial help with school lunches and tuition to students whose parents were laid off due to the recession.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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