Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Would Japan's School Lunch Program Work in the U.S.?

Posted By on Wed, Jan 30, 2013 at 5:58 AM

A typical Japanese school lunch. Every child eats the same lunch (with some exceptions for dietary restrictions).
Chef Jeremy Barlow (of Sloco) retweeted a link to this very interesting article from The Washington Post about school lunches in Japan. The article has been making the rounds on the Twitterscape of chefs, nutritionists and others concerned about the health and welfare of school-age children.

At schools in Japan, the Post's Chico Harlan reports, "The meals are often made from scratch. They’re balanced but hearty, heavy on rice and vegetables, fish and soups." All the kids get identical meals, and if they don't eat their lunch, there are no vending machines providing snacks. And most younger kids aren't even allowed to bring lunch from home.

If the topic of school lunches interests you, note that childhood obesity — a related concern — is the focus of tonight’s A Place at the Table. The special guest, Dr. Greg Plemmons, director of the Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at Monroe Carell Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, will be speaking and answering questions. Dinner starts at 5 p.m. and both omnivore and vegan meals — with a Cajun flavor — are available.

Th school lunch issue is of particular interest to me, because kindergarten is in the near future for my daughter — though I have plans to send lunch to school with her so I can feel good about what she’s (supposed to be) eating.

And the article really made me think about school lunches when I was a kid. I ate the cafeteria food for just a few years in elementary school before switching to bagged lunch. I waited in long lines for terrible food and usually had only the time and interest to eat some of the fruit and vegetables (as in, applesauce and overcooked green beans). Unless it was pizza day. The other entrees didn’t just disinterest me, they disgusted me. I never did take even one bite of beefaroni.

High school was worse; the lines for hot lunch were so long that if you were unfortunate enough to be on the top floor of the school in the period before lunch (served in the basement), you had no time to eat after standing in line. Assuming there was even any palatable food left.

I often opted for the “salad” line, which was much shorter. Most of us didn’t eat the salad; instead, we stood in that line to buy sweet tea or Jungle Juice and honey buns or King Dons. I realized I needed to start taking my lunch again after one too many times of passing out during soccer practice after school. Good riddance to bad rubbish (literally).

A peek at Metro Nashville Public Schools menus indicates that selections are a little more balanced now, but I still see beefaroni (renamed "chili mac" — but you’re not fooling me, beefaroni!) on the menu. And I’ve read about concerns regarding food waste, as children tend to ignore and then throw out the healthier foods.

But would the Japanese model work in the United States? I doubt it. Giving children (and parents) little to no choice is just not the American way. And as it stands now, my kid already turns away food that she actually likes. Or did like? Hell if I know. (Toddlers!) Regardless, I applaud the schools for providing healthier food, but when kids are still given an option (including bringing food from home, not to mention whatever junk that’s available in the cafeteria that’s not on the official menu), it’s not likely that there’s going to be much improvement.

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