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Not Eating Everything for School Lunch--Is That Bad?

Japanese Chinese

Recently, the mass media is giving considerable news coverage to the fact that many students at a junior high school in the Kanto area leave much of their school lunch uneaten. News coverage images of plastic lunch containers lined up, and most of them were only half eaten. It was a shocking sight.

There are also several reports of inedible substances found in lunches, but the mass media, basing its coverage on the views of students that "school lunch is tasteless" or "the lunches are cold and taste terrible," have focused on the problem of temperature control or seasoning and students today as picky eaters (because of their rich diets) who do not eat everything they are served. I, however, have come to see that the fundamental problem of school lunch is concealed in this issue.

The school lunch program began with the School Lunch Program Act that was passed in 1954, about a decade after the end of World War II. Looking into it, we see that it was a front-end law of comprehensive scope that anticipated the more recent Basic Act on Food Education. It also voiced a concern with food ingredients and learning about food culture. We sense the importance given by politicians and officials to improving the nutrition of the Japanese people at a time soon after the war when there were still many malnourished children.

The current problem regarding the large amount of uneaten food appears superficially due to several factors such as the practice of outsourcing the school lunch service due to the difficulty of cooking in the school, monotonous menus provided through mass production, and bland-tasting food as a result of considering nutritional balance, and low temperature storage to prevent spoilage, etc. The School Lunch Program Act also hails the educational effect of students being able to see the process of preparing food at school, and it is also difficult for the outsourcing to comply with this fundamental spirit of the law.

However, I think the fundamental problem is something a little different. The recent news story was precipitated by the fact that students were leaving huge amounts of food uneaten. The problem was found to lie in the school lunch system. In my view, however, under the current system, leftover food in school lunches is something to be expected, and that is not where the problem lies. Rather the problem is the big fuss that is made about it.

Disregarding for a moment the fact that outsourced school lunch boxes are tasteless and cold, the same amount of food is served to all students under this system. We adults sometimes are offered a boxed lunch at meetings, etc., which is similar to a school lunch. In this case, do all those who are present finish the entire lunch? I doubt we have seen this happen. Each person has his or her own taste and the amount of food eaten differs and no one would ever be criticized for leaving food uneaten. Furthermore, participants would not complain to the meeting organizers who ordered the lunch about the large amount of leftover food.

From the higher grades of elementary school through junior high school when students undergo puberty is a time of great variation in physical constitution. Serving the same amount to all surely results in leftovers. If leftovers are to be avoided above all, there are two possible methods to consider. One method would be to standardize portions according to the amount eaten by students of the lowest weight and who eat little. However, this would mean that most students would go hungry for half the day. Even if portions are adjusted according to students of average weight and appetite, half will be unable to finish the lunch and half will still be hungry.

Another possibility would be offering a buffet style lunch allowing students to decide their own portions. Lunch is served in this way in some schools, but it has been undoubtedly difficult to implement due to cost and management issues.

My generation was served school lunch during a time when memories of wartime destruction were still fresh. It was immoral to leave food uneaten, and we were told that leaving one grain of rice would destroy our eyesight. We were raised on powdered milk, which was widely known for its awful taste. (I never disliked it though.) It seems to me that this disapproval of leftovers irrespective of how school lunch is served is an old idea from the past that still persists in society today.

From a global point of view, this "mottainai spirit (sense of regret over wasting)" certainly deserves praise and recognition but considering individual differences in nutritional needs and taste as well as appetite, the large amount of leftover food in school lunches is a quite natural consequence, and we can say at the very least that students are not responsible.

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sakakihara_2013.jpg Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.
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