When the board of education of Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, notified the city’s 30 elementary schools and 13 junior high schools that school lunches would not be served on Dec. 20 and Jan. 12, it touched off a heated debate. Although the ostensible reason was an increase in the price of vegetables in schools already beset with a net deficit, there is more to the story.

In Japan, a tasty, nutritious hot lunch is viewed as a virtual right. Unlike school lunches served in other nations, Japan’s are famous for their quality. That’s not surprising in light of the healthful ingredients and careful preparation. While no one would label them gourmet by any means, they far surpass the traditional fare dished out in U.S. schools.

Despite the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school lunches in the United States remain so unappetizing that much of the food is thrown away. That means too much of the combined lunch and breakfast programs costing $15 billion and serving nearly 32 million children, about 45 percent of the entire youth population, winds up as waste.

The reason is that U.S. children have become addicted to fast food and sugary treats through ubiquitous ads. Even though attempts have been made to partially tailor the free lunches to the palates of students, they can’t compete with the food carts stationed immediately off school grounds that sell what students demand.

The result is seen in the number of obese children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, five states reported childhood obesity rates from 15 to 19 percent in 2009. In 2013, eight states had rates that high. Overall, one third of youth between the ages of two and 19 are obese.

In addition to the differences in quality between lunches in Japan and the U.S., there is also the issue of funding. The basis for the program in the U.S. goes back to 1946 when the National School Lunch Program was signed into law by President Harry Truman. Its intent was to provide highly nutritious meals for children who lacked access to a proper diet. It followed on the heels of an investigation finding that many of the men rejected during the World War II draft suffered from poor nutrition during their childhood.

The program gained traction because poor nutrition has been linked to low test scores, high absenteeism and disruptive behavior. Confusion abounds when the definition of food insecurity arises. Children can avoid hunger by consuming junk food, but what they consume is hardly nutritious. That’s why Michelle Obama undertook a campaign to make healthful ingredients a part of free school lunches. She pushed for more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, and less sodium and saturated fat.

It’s here that Japan runs the risk of undermining what it has accomplished. By seeking cheaper ingredients, local governments are being penny wise and pound foolish. For example, substituting pricier spinach with cheaper bean sprouts will save a few yen, but the price paid in the long run is not worth it. Mandatory school lunch programs are better than no school lunch programs. But shortcuts will turn out to be counterproductive.

Rather than throw in the towel, however, the Diet can increase funding to all public schools to allow them to continue offering the high quality lunches they are famous for. Moreover, gradually introducing new items can help alter children’s tastes. For example, there was a time in the U.S. when yogurt never was on the menu. When it became a choice for dessert instead of chocolate pudding, it soon became popular, until now it is in high demand.

Culture plays a powerful role in what is eaten. If schools are serious about improving the health of students, they need to become more creative in what they serve for lunch and breakfast.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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