Feeding them right

Feeding them right

It’s a big day for 7-year-old Kazama. He has just lost one of his milk teeth. “Campai (Cheers)!" shout his classmates, holding aloft their 200ml full-cream milk cartons as they raise a toast to the grinning schoolboy. Earlier, another 7-year-old in this second-grade class had delivered a short speech on the importance of calcium in the diet and how drinking milk daily would bone up the body and keep teeth healthy.

We are at the Nishi-Kasai Elementary School in Tokyo to witness the Kyoshoku, Japan’s school lunch programme, widely acknowledged to be the best in the world. Children between the ages of 6 and 12 study here before they move on to junior high school.

It’s no idle coincidence that the Japanese hold the record for longevity—the average life expectancy for women is 87 and men, 78. Genetics is only one part, diet and nutrition too play a large part, and the government ensures the nation stays healthy by inculcating good eating practices from a very young age.

Since 1954, school lunches have been a requirement by law in Japan. The programme began soon after World War II, in 1946, when Japan was reeling from food shortages and facing a health crisis. But by the late 1960s and 1970s, as Japan grew into an economic superpower, school lunch programmes focused more on the educational aspects of the dining experience. Students learnt about the importance of a balanced diet and proper mealtime manners.

Today, as Japan is beginning to be hit by lifestyle problems such as obesity, metabolic syndrome and families not eating together, the government is using its school lunch programme to tackle this at the root. In 1997, the ministry of education, science and sport proposed that the main objective of school lunch programmes should be changed from meal supply to nutrition education. In July 2005, the government passed a new law on syokuiku, or food education. Since 99.2% of schools and 85.6% of junior high schools have a school lunch programme in Japan, it was easy to use this route.

Daily lunch routine

Like everything else the Japanese do, the school lunch programme is planned with military precision and implemented efficiently. For example, each day, one sample meal and individual samples of all ingredients are stored in a special refrigerator so that in the event of food poisoning, the offending item can be quickly identified.

The rations (vegetables, fish, meat, etc.) are delivered to the school in the morning and the food is prepared on the premises the day it is to be eaten. And before anything else, all surfaces of the commercial kitchen in the campus are thoroughly disinfected, and the cans and vats washed. Then, the chopping and cooking begins.

Today’s menu is Touganno Misoshiru (liso soup), Hiziki Gohan (fried rice), Tohumasagoage (a shrimp and vegetable cutlet), nibitashi (vegetables including spinach) and nashi (fruit). At most schools, a test meal is first sent to the principal, and it is prepared for the classrooms only if it tastes satisfactory. From the large vats, the food is transferred into little buckets labelled with the classroom they have to go to. School dietician Yoko Kobayashi says that food for children with allergies or special needs is separated and labelled with the child’s name. She adds that the school has two Indian students and occasionally a curry meal is slipped in for them.

All the students eat lunch in their respective classrooms. The class teacher, who joins the students, places the various dishes of the day on a chart displaying food groups so that the children learn about the food they are eating and also learn the importance of a varied diet. The teacher also uses this time to teach the children table manners and tell them not to be picky in what they eat.

A group of students designated as the “lunch squad" goes from each class to get the food. Dressed in all-white masks, gloves and smocks, they march up to the kitchen, get the buckets of food and arrive back to set them up on a counter in the corner of the classroom. By now, the other children have arranged their tables, seating themselves in groups of four and arranging napkins and towels. At this school, lunch is served in ceramic bowls and plates—another sign of the care vested on little details. Till some years ago, the school lunch was served in inexpensive and unbreakable plastic bowls, but increasing health and environmental concerns led to a “back to natural materials" movement.

At the end of the meal, the squad members transfer all waste into designated boxes and carry the buckets back to the kitchen. Their duty ends on Friday: They take their smock and hat back home to be washed and given to the next child on duty on Monday.

The cost of the school lunch programme varies from school to school. According to Kimiko Yabe, the principal of the school, parents shell out $4.35 (Rs173.13) per month per student and the rest is subsidized by the government.

Adopting local produce

Chisan, chishou, the local term for ‘produce local, consume local’, is a major campaign in Japan and it is reflected in the school menu as well. The cabinet office directive says that ingredients for the meals have to be sourced from places no more than 30km away. No frozen foods are used at all. “The idea is to increase the food self-sufficiency rate," says Yabe, adding that it also gives the children an idea of local produce. The idea is also to try and wean away the children from western wheat-based meals and focus on rice. Most schools take their students on visits to farms and fisheries, and, in some schools, farming is a part of the curriculum. The message is that fresh, local foods are healthier and that small, local farms are better for the environment, requiring less water and pesticides.

Educating parents

The school lunch programme is also used as a means to reach out to adults. Special days are set for parents to visit and witness the programme and the school nutritionist encourages mothers to try to make more of these foods at home so that the children learn to like them or become used to their flavours and stop craving junk food. Questionnaires are regularly sent out to parents to find out the eating pattern at home. Given the rising trend in obesity (8-9% of kids in Japan are overweight), the discussions with parents do focus on the issue. The dietary education promotion department, cabinet office, Japan, even distributes a Home Education handbook that details ideal eating habits to parents and children.

A number of local NGOs also hold regular cooking classes for elementary school children and their parents, where they learn to cook rice, miso soup and other main dishes. Children are taught about traditional vegetables, many of which are in danger of being forgotten. Miho Kawano, assistant counsellor at the dietary education promotion department, says the idea is to get the children interested in food.

One such organization that visits schools around the country, presenting workshops and cooking sessions is the Japan Slow Food Association (now renamed Japan Food). The association is trying to counter the threat posed to Japanese cuisine by fast food chains like McDonalds. Founded by designer Katsushi Kunimoto, the association is actively involved in helping children understand every part of the food chain, from the farm to the dining table. As they point out, “Food is the foundation of human life. We should at least have a good idea of where things come from before we put them in our mouths."

Food education

In Japan, one in three men between 40 and 60 years is obese; one in five women is underweight. One in two men is a potential candidate for metabolic syndrome (internal organ obesity disorder that increases risk of heart disease). More than 1% of the population (16.2 million) is suspected to be diabetic or will potentially develop the disease. The Japanese government has drawn up a comprehensive plan to tackle this trend. “We want to put the brakes on these trends," says Daisuke Hutami, representative director of the Japan Dietetic Association.

At the same time, “beauty conscious" Japanese women are getting increasingly thinner and Hutami describes how the national worry is whether the underweight women are healthy enough to become mothers. So, on 15 July 2005, a new law on syokuiku came into force. It lays down the basic philosophy for “dietary education" to eradicate all these problems at the root. Says Miho Kawano, assistant counsellor at the cabinet office on dietary education promotion department: “Syokuiku is based on the theory that every individual needs to acquire knowledge about how to choose food, be aware of healthy diet and food safety." What is impressive is the scale and precision with which the movement has been launched all over the country and how every school, prefecture, municipal office, corporate, NGO and literally every citizen on the street has been drawn into the programme.

According to Kawano, the programme has an annual budget of $98.31 million (Rs391.27 crore) and there are 190,000 volunteers involved. The goal is to get at least 20% more volunteers by 2010 who will spread awareness about nutrition and the link between diet and health all over Japan. And, in a brilliant masterstroke, health insurance societies, too, have been drawn into the programme. Hutami says that from April 2008, the government is planning to route special health checking and guidance facilities to every Japanese citizen through insurance societies. Successful societies will be given a reward, while unsuccessful ones will be penalized. Other innovative measures include introducing special logos on takeaway food items that conform to the balanced diet guidelines of the government, encouraging citizens to opt for foods in retail stores that have “healthy menu" printed on it.

The targets set for Health Japan 21 by 2010 are indeed ambitious. Currently, just 3.5% of primary school children skip breakfast in the country. The government wants to reduce that to 0. By 2010, it is hoped that 80% of Japanese citizens would have undergone food education.

Of course, there are several critics and doubters of the programme. Obesity experts have panned the campaign saying it is doomed to failure unless sports facilities and exercise regimens are improved. The British medical journal, The Lancet, in an article earlier this year, dubbed Japan’s obesity reduction targets (the aim is to reduce the percentage of obese men in 40s-60s from the current 24.3% to 15% by 2010) through a public education programme as “ridiculously optimistic". Indeed, with just three years to go, it does appear to be a long road ahead.

Incidentally, the same Lancet article also points out that “Japan’s obesity problems pale in comparison with the obesity crisis unfolding in India." Is the Indian government listening?

Table Manners

After seeing the fine example of a Japanese school lunch programme, we looked around for similar examples in India. Of course, the Indian government has its mid-day meal scheme where underprivileged students in government schools are served free lunches. But that’s the basic khichdi and kheer (which more often than not, it is alleged, is adulterated or uses shoddy products) and is a far cry from the concept of food education.

So, it seemed more appropriate to look at what public schools in India are doing. While most school children take a packed brunch/lunch from home, there are an emerging number of day schools in metros such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore that are experimenting with school lunches.

One such example is The Shri Ram School, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. Says principal Maneka Sharma: “We have had school lunches since inception because we recognized right at the start that besides providing an opportunity to eat together, there are a lot of life skills—table manners, nutrition education, healthy eating, etc.—that could be taught during the lunch hour."

The meal is cooked on campus where a full-fledged commercial kitchen exists. Cooking is outsourced, though the menu is provided by the school and is strictly vegetarian.

Although it is not organized on military lines like the Japanese school lunches, The Shri Ram School lunch programme is constantly evolving. For instance, the menu, devised by the teachers, is circulated to parents and also vetted by dieticians. When some parents said that the same menu could be repeated on the dinner table at home, the school authorities started putting up the menu on the school website. “This way the parents would know in advance what the kids were getting for lunch and would not repeat the same at home for dinner," says Sharma.

While the nursery kids eat in their classrooms, the older children eat in the dining halls. It’s mandatory for the teachers to eat with the students at The Shri Ram School. Often, the learning on table manners and nutrition given by teachers is supplemented by visiting parents who read out stories on good eating habits. Last Friday, for instance, Seema Chandra, who anchors NDTV’s Good Food programme, and whose children study in the school, held the kids spellbound with a story featuring Darth Vader and weaving nutrition into it.

Given the different cultural background of the children, care is taken to provide a varied menu factoring in regional cuisines. So one day it could be idli sambhar, the next rajma chawal. Though predominantly Indian, the occasional pasta and vegetables are thrown in. And “to keep interest alive in food, we also occasionally offer ice cream instead of fresh fruit", says Sharma.

While the children are encouraged not to leave anything on the plate, nothing goes waste as leftovers are recycled at the school’s vermicomposting pit. The manure produced is sold to parents.

Even as the children are sensitized to healthy eating habits during lunch hour, the canteen also stocks wholesome food. No junk food, no crisps, instead bhelpuri and brown bread sandwiches are on offer.

The school is sensitive to food allergies—children with nut allergies, lactose intolerance or wheat allergy are served a different platter.

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

Freelance writer Chitra Narayanan visited Japan as a guest of Yakult Danone India