School Food: Japan and the United States

By Kalen Hermanson

ATTN posted a video last week comparing the school food system of Japan and the United States. The video shows the stark comparison between the school food environments in Japan and the United States. Japan’s program is rich in food education, teaching the kids to prepare healthy food and serving fresh food that they themselves have helped to make from scratch. Japan serves balanced lunch meals that could be made at home, and often parents call for recipes when kids ask to recreate the lunches out of school. Schools have no vending machines, and outside food is restricted except for special dietary needs. As a result, school-provided lunch is the kids’ only option. Most schools employ nutritionists to guide the lunch program, develop recipes, and work with picky eaters.

In contrast, I remember growing up with corn dogs and tater tots, frozen pizza and the dreaded “mystery meat.” I can’t remember ever having quality produce. School lunch fruits and vegetables were either canned mixed veggies, peaches in syrup, or severely anemic looking lettuce with ranch. Vending machines were a common pick-me-up in high school, with students often turning to candy or chips to get through the afternoon. Throughout my schooling I definitely did not get any instruction on food preparation, and besides brief lessons on the food pyramid, I don’t remember learning anything about the importance of balanced meals.

Contrasts like these make me look at our food environments and see opportunity for change. In the United States, 1 in 3 children and teens is overweight or obese. Japan’s childhood obesity rate is among the world’s lowest, and has declined every year for the past six years since the dietary program in schools has expanded. Japan views school lunchtime as an additional and integral part of education, rather than simply a mid-day break from schooling. By teaching kids about cooking and healthy food habits, Japan has instilled knowledge about healthy behaviors in their students at a young age.

While I know that school food in the United States has evolved since I was in elementary school and high school, our system still has a lot of room for improvement. By looking at lunch as an opportunity for beneficial education as Japan does, we can begin to transform the school environment to instill healthy habits in our children. Hopefully as the childhood obesity prevention field grows, we can begin to see changes in our school food programs, with progress and success similar to Japan.