What lessons can countries learn from Japan on school meals?

A class during lunch at an elementary school in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by: REUTERS / Toru Hanai

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Post-World War II, Japan faced food shortages and malnutrition among children was a particular concern.

Many recall the birth of instant noodles during this time, but the predicament of the country also led the government to establish a school lunch program for all children regardless of their economic or health status.

School lunch programs have been in existence in Japan for over a century, according to Nobuko Murayama, dean of the human life studies faculty at the University of Niigata Prefecture, Japan.

Ths school meals began in 1889, offered free to poor students in a primary school in Yamagata Prefecture. Over the years, the program expanded to include more schoolchildren and cities across the country. It was suspended during World War II, but was eventually reinstated after, with aid from international organizations such as UNICEF and the United States. Two of the most popular food aid items in the meals were powdered skim milk from UNICEF and wheat flour donated by the U.S.

 “This is not just [about] giving the food to the children. It is a part of education.”

— Kei Kuriwaki, senior adviser, The Ajinomoto Foundation

In 1951, when donations of wheat flour through the government’s fund for school meal programs stopped, around the time of the signing of the treaty to end the Allied occupation of Japan, there was clamor among the population for the government to continue and expand the program nationwide.

The high demand for the program led to the enactment of the School Lunch Act in 1954, which became the foundation for the continued existence of the country’s school lunch programs today.

Murayama, who speak with Devex on the sidelines of the 2019 Global Child Nutrition Forum, said having the law in place was one of the most important pillars of the school meals program.

“From my observation, some countries change the policy dramatically [depending] on the government political party. If the political party changed, the government action changes,” Murayama said. “But in Japan, we cannot change because [it's part of the law].”

The law obligates the government to keep the school lunch program in place. And subsequent laws and measures help reinforce and improve the program, allowing room to address emerging socio-economic issues that impact children’s health and nutrition. This includes the introduction of diet and nutrition teachers responsible for managing school lunch programs in 2004.

Under Japanese law, the number of school lunch nutritionists recommended per school depends on the number of school children. The ratio is typically 1 for every 550 children — or more in schools equipped with their own kitchens — and 1 for every 1,500 children, or less, in schools that rely on a central kitchen system, that is, an external kitchen serving multiple schools in an area, according to an article published in The Japanese Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics in July 2018. Murayama is the journal’s editor-in-chief.

Diet and nutrition teachers part of Japan’s school meals program is another significant component, according to Kei Kuriwaki, senior adviser at The Ajinomoto Foundation. Not only are they responsible for planning schools’ lunch menus according to the set nutritional standards — which Murayama said is another important aspect — for primary and secondary school children, they also help facilitate Shokuik, or food and nutrition education among the students.

“Even in Japan, the dietitian is thought to be just a cook. But they are a nutrition communicator. So the position of the dietitian should be increased. Otherwise, there may be a lot of food, but there's no nutrition balance. Nobody learns,” Kuriwaki said.

Nutrition education helps children understand what a proper, healthy meal is, and the knowledge students gain in their younger years are expected to help inform their food choices in adulthood, Murayama said.

This is all the more important as obesity rates and other so-called lifestyle-related diseases increase worldwide, including in many Asian countries.

“We don't like the word school feeding because feeding is like feeding the chickens,” Kuriwaki said. “This is not just [about] giving the food to the children. It is a part of education.”

Successes and challenges

Japan’s school lunch program is a model for other countries. School lunch coverage in Japan was at 98.8% in primary school, and 79% in secondary school in 2018, according to the “School Lunch Implementation Survey” by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Recent studies have also shown the program helps improve nutrient intake among students and reduces disparities in the diets of school children coming from households with different income levels.

A study published by Murayama and colleagues in 2017 looked at how household income is impacting the food and nutrient intake of 5th-grade students, ages 10-11 years old, in 19 schools across four prefectures in East Japan. The study found that students from the low-income group — those whose household income was 2.23 million yen ($20,533) and below annually — consumed less protein, sugar, green vegetables, fish, poultry, and other food rich in particular nutrients than students from the high-income group, those whose household income was roughly between 3 and 6 million yen, on days when school lunch was not provided. But on days when school lunch was served, the study found no significant differences among the income groups.

“We thought that among the Japanese population, we don't have an income gap for diet or health status. But in Japan, in the last 15 years or 10 years, [there was an] increase [in] the income gap,” Murayama said.

She said there’s been an increase in people working part-time instead of full-time jobs in Japan.

The study helped provide new evidence of the importance of school lunch in Japan’s changing socio-economic situation and led some local government units to increase the subsidy for school lunches, including increasing the coverage for students in secondary school.

But despite having a well-established school meal program, Murayama said there’s still room for expansion and improvement. In fact, the government has asked her team to conduct another research on school lunch programs for children in preschool or nursery. There are currently no lunch programs for preschool students, no nutritional standards available, and no dietitians teaching nutrition education, the professor said.

Asked if Murayama and Kuriwaki have any advice for countries facing budgetary and implementation challenges with country’s school meal programs, Kuriwaki said countries seem to be too dependent on foreign aid and help from international organizations such as the World Food Programme. He said countries should be more independent when it comes to their financial resources.

In Japan, while the government has a budget for school lunches, parents also pay their share, estimated at $40 a month, according to Kuriwaki. The government subsidizes those who couldn’t pay, Kuriwaki said.

Not relying on donor support is perhaps easy to say for a high-income country such as Japan. But Kuriwaki said: “In 1954, when we [had the] law, we were not a rich country. We were a poor country. But this is an investment [for] future growth.”

Kuriwaki said Japan then didn’t have enough food but still believed that “children are important. We give the children priority.”

The reporter traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia with support from the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.