Japanese school lunches and the US

Posted on Jan 30 2013 - 12:56pm by Lacey Russell

If you attended a public school at any point in your life, you’ll more than likely remember the food served in the cafeteria.
I only attended public school for first through third grade and still have the distinct memory of the rice served. I described it to my mother as being stuck together like Rice Krispies Treats. It could also be described as “gross.”
While the lunches at the private school I later attended tasted better, they weren’t much healthier than the pizza for breakfast served at the public school. We had a rotating menu featuring food from a local Chinese restaurant, Domino’s Pizza and other restaurants in town. Our healthiest options were sandwich days and Chick-fil-A days.
School lunches haven’t improved drastically since we were eating them. After all, french fries are still often considered a vegetable. However, they have fallen under scrutiny, perhaps most famously by chef Jamie Oliver and first lady Michelle Obama. Both have called for healthier school lunches in light of the rising obesity epidemic in our country.
This past week, The Washington Post published an article about school lunches in Japan, calling them a point of “national pride” in the country.
Japan faced a rise in childhood obesity along with other developed countries. While the rise was not quite as great as in countries like our own, it was a prevalent problem. However, the levels have decreased, and Japan now has some of the lowest rates of childhood obesity in the developed world.
Japanese officials attribute much of this decrease to policies made in regard to school lunches. The lunches are typically planned by a nutritionist and locally-grown produce is often used in dishes featuring rice, vegetables, soup and fish.
Many argue it is difficult to compare data about childhood obesity across countries because of the different cultures and their definitions of childhood and obesity; however, The Washington Post points to two statistics that are drastically different between the U.S. and Japan.
In Japan, a study was done that showed levels of childhood obesity dropping around age five when students begin going to school. The exact opposite was found in the same study conducted in the U.S.
Also interesting is when levels of childhood obesity begin to pick back up in Japan — age 15. Until students reach high school, most are not allowed to bring their own lunches, and everyone receives identical meals; however, around age 15 students may begin making some of their own food choices, which could account for the rise. These studies indicate school lunches play an important role in the instances of childhood obesity.
So what does this mean for the U.S.? Can we learn from Japan’s school lunches? The answer still remains to be seen, and more studies should most likely be conducted; however, not looking into and paying attention to these developments would be a shame, especially for the children in our country.

Megan Massey is a religious studies senior from Mount Olive. Follow her on Twitter @megan_massey.