No longer cloistered in the cafeteria, school lunch is everywhere. It’s on television. In the newspapers. On the internet. Even BuzzFeed. It’s gone national—international, even. Delving deeper into the subject will lead to authors and eaters that refer to Japan as pinnacle of school lunch providers: the country has one of the freshest, most seasonal, most healthy, and—honestly—most aesthetically appealing programs available. Yet, as amazing as the Japanese school lunch system appears, wholesale duplication just isn’t possible in the United States. The U.S. has a whole myriad of problems to deal with before getting anywhere close to the Japanese model. All is not lost, however. Even without ideal ingredients, specially-trained servers, or a system and policy on par with Japan’s, schools in the U.S. (and worldwide) can apply aspects of the Japanese curriculum—now.
One of the most comprehensive changes the U.S. can make is to turn food into a modern learning tool. It’s all about attitude; even dishes like pizza or kimchi can become the medium through which students study history, biology, economics, art, and chemistry. (Think about it: examining the fermentation and pickling process of kimchi, or studying the trade route of peppers and tomatoes—and their eventual transformation into culinary staples!) Likewise, in many elementary and junior high schools around Japan, students learn to relate to food as a symbol of national identity. In the U.S., this can translate into a celebration of ethnic diversity, as children trace the origins of their favorite food—curry and naan for India; pizza and spaghetti for Italy; cheese and baguettes for France; rice and noodles for China. Simple and stereotyped, yes; but the lesson is a foundation for global competency, as well as cultural tolerance and appreciation.
In addition to instruction on food origins, ingredients, and nutrition, the act and process of eating serve as teaching methods. Educators can show children that meals are not about scarfing down lunch to escape to the schoolyard, or playing with dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets; meals are not about eating on-the-go. (At least, not all the time.) Instead, educators emphasize meals as a time for reflection and appreciation: not only savoring the food itself, but a time to meditate on the events and lessons of the day. The key is to create the right environment for this to flourish—and, when it comes to kids, discipline, to some degree, is needed. In Japanese schools, students take lunch in the classroom, not in the cafeteria or on the playground. The classroom is a structured environment, and although some of the customary rules may fall away during meal time, in this space the lunch hour maintains a continuous learning environment.
So what goes on during classroom lunch in Japan? Noontime broadcasts perpetuate the educational atmosphere. Schools conduct these daily segments, usually run by student volunteers, over loudspeaker. The broadcasts offer a funny stories, popular music, and school-related announcements; more importantly, regular segments feature the school lunch menu and provide information about the history and origins of the meal, often touching on society, geography, economics, culture, environment, and trade. If school administrators in the U.S. promote a meal’s narrative, students may take an active interest in the food itself.
What else can enhance these complementary education programs? Plant gardens: green, brown, messy, fascinating gardens. Many schools in the United States have already begun their own green efforts. For inner-city or poorer schools, or schools where authorities will not invest in a garden plot, alternatives exist. In Japan, it’s quite common to see small plastic buckets of plants adorning elementary school classrooms. Usually, students grow rice, occasionally taking on cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, or sunflowers. In a literal field trip, classes visit nearby farms to help with the planting, weeding, and harvesting of a specific crop.
Whether grown in the classrooms or out in the field, the year is not complete without a communal meal, prepared by teachers or staff. Yet, more often than not, students have special time set aside for them to learn how to cook and eat just what exactly it is they’ve grown. “Home economics” is still alive and well in Japan—and children learn its principles from a very early age. Elementary school classes learn to cook eggs, vegetables, soups, desserts, and even simple breads. Often, these dishes require only a few ingredients and minimal knife work. These experiences instill respect, interest, and practical life skills. They also teach children not to be afraid of cooking—often a daunting task when kids don’t know where to start.
Lastly, there is the concept of impartial service. In Japan, students distribute and serve the food that the lunch staff prepared. Student lunch services teach teamwork, strength, and determination (e.g., students often have to lift heavy containers), as well as the importance of preparation, punctuality, and cleanliness. Equal servings are a must, so favoritism or bullying cannot influence the meal. Adding a service component of regular mealtime responsibilities may encourage students to interact outside of cliques, and may help lessen classroom fractioning and drama.
While the Japanese school lunch system is undoubtedly enviable, these social and behavioral elements, apart from the food itself, are what really offset the whole story of the meal system. Lasting change can come from changing minds by altering the ordinary in small, but meaningful, ways.