On Oct. 25, the education department of Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, sent notices to the city’s 30 elementary schools and 13 junior high schools saying that school lunches would not be served on Dec. 20 and Jan. 12. The reason, it said, was a sharp increase in the price of vegetables owing to bad weather this past summer. The budget was overburdened, and the department felt that the two days selected would have the least negative impact on students because Dec. 20 was the last school day of the year and Jan. 12 was the first school day of 2017, so schedules would be irregular anyway.

This very local news received a fair amount of coverage in the national press, and some media called the city for further clarification. As it turns out, the hot lunch program for Suzuka’s schools was running a net deficit. The monthly lunch fee for elementary school students had been increased in 2014 from ¥4,000 to ¥4,100. Junior high schools, on the other hand, had only started serving school lunches in May, and they charged ¥4,700 a month. A bureaucrat told the Mainichi Shimbun that the city “couldn’t help but cut lunches for those two days,” because, in accordance with rules set by the education ministry, it had to “meet certain nutritional standards,” and in order to do that it would have to purchase certain ingredients that have become more expensive in recent months.

“We can’t increase the lunch fee suddenly in the middle of the year,” the representative told the Mainichi, “so we hope parents understand this is a better solution.” Two weeks later, after media reports engendered a backlash, the city rescinded the cancelation.

But Suzuka wasn’t the only local government wrestling with this problem. Nagoya is looking for “cheaper ingredients” by soliciting different vendors and changing some items on its menus. The nearby city of Gifu has not changed its lunch menu or the volume of portions, but it is eliminating dessert, which isn’t served every day, as well as the amount of beef in its curry rice. It is also thinking of replacing pricier spinach with cheaper bean sprouts or Chinese cabbage. As of this fall, parents of elementary school students were paying ¥250 per meal, each of which cost the city ¥262; for junior high school students the price is ¥299 and the city pays ¥303. The difference is only a few yen, but multiplied by thousands of students a day, every day, it adds up.

The reason school lunches receive so much attention is that in Japan they are considered part of the public school curriculum, an aspect of growing up that means more than just stable nutrition. Japan is famous around the world for the high quality of its school lunches. Beyond the inculcation of good eating habits and an appreciation of wholesome food, Japan’s school lunch program stresses the importance of community by having students pitch in with serving and cleaning, and, more to the point, it makes children understand their responsibilities within the group, which is why so many schools mandate that all their students buy lunch.

Almost all public elementary schools in Japan have mandatory school lunch programs. For junior high schools it hasn’t always been an obligation, but in recent years more have made it so — about 80 percent of them at last count. Long before World War II, when lunch wasn’t mandatory, it wasn’t unusual for many children to skip lunch, a situation that made for a kind of class divide: well-to-do students brought packed lunches from home while children from poorer families just did without. As Japan modernized, building strong young bodies for the sake of the country became government policy, and the only way to guarantee that everyone ate lunch was to make school lunches mandatory and unify menus.

After the war, school lunch programs became even more systematized and were exploited by the American Occupation, which addressed the country’s acute food shortage by giving schools lots of free wheat and powdered milk to develop young Japanese people’s tastes for bread and dairy products, thus creating future consumers of American exports. Because of demographic differences, big cities were slower to get with the program. Yokohama, for instance, has never had a mandatory school lunch system for its junior high schools.

Students whose families receive public assistance can have their school lunches subsidized by the government, and even those who do not receive welfare but whose families may not be able to afford school lunches can get some kind of reimbursement. These policies are more social than economic in purpose, since the real meaning of mandatory school lunches is psychological: No child should feel inferior or superior to classmates because everyone eats the same thing for lunch.

In that regard, more attention is being paid to school lunch scofflaws — parents who have been delinquent in paying for their children’s lunches. The city of Osaka reported that the amount of nonpayment has reached ¥100 million, and last month it engaged a group of lawyers to hound such parents. The lawyers essentially act like a collection agency.

The education ministry says that nationwide, the school lunch nonpayment bill has reached ¥2 billion a year. According to its own survey, only 30 percent of parents don’t pay because of financial limitations. Sixty percent are simply “irresponsible.”

Educator Sakiko Gan, who has written two books about Japan’s school lunch program, says that for many low-income students, lunch is the main meal of the day. It’s part of the social safety net, so it is incumbent on schools to be consistent in their lunch policy. Generally speaking, the price that parents pay goes only to materials. Everything else — personnel, delivery costs, overheads — is covered by taxes.

Gan thinks the media has overstated the nonpayment problem. Two billion yen sounds like a lot, but it only represents 0.9 percent of the combined school lunch budgets for the whole country. On the other hand, school lunches comprise a major portion of parents’ education outlay, which also includes uniforms, excursions and extracurricular activities. In some areas, school lunches make up as much as 90 percent of this outlay. Each public elementary school student needs, altogether, about ¥100,000 a year, whereas a junior high school student costs ¥170,000, and that doesn’t include the cost of cram schools.

Gan says the education ministry survey is not rigorous. The government surveys schools, not parents themselves, and she believes school officials are quick to stereotype people.

“They see parents with nice clothes who aren’t paying their school lunch fees and they think they’re cheating,” she said recently on a discussion on TBS Radio. But school officials don’t actually know those parents’ financial situations.

Underscoring the importance of school lunches in household finances, the city of Aioi in Hyogo Prefecture has seen success in recent years with a program to attract young families by making all school lunches free. Before the policy was enacted, the city was losing 200 households a year. Since it was enacted they’ve reversed that trend and gained 100 households a year. Families, it seems, will go where they know they can save money.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

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