Kyushoku, A Lesson with Lunch
For most Japanese school children, school lunches are more than just a tray of food. Gakko-kyushoku, school lunches, are an integral part of their studies. Along with tasty meals, Japan’s unique kyushoku system serves up some very important lessons in nutrition, health, cooking, social skills and more.
Most public elementary and many junior high schools in Japan provide lunches for their students. These meals, paid for by monthly school lunch fees, are prepared in kitchens within the school or at school-lunch centers serving several schools. School lunches in Japan are an integral part of a school’s educational activities: in fact, school lunch instruction is defined as a special classroom activity. Lunch programs are designed to help school children understand what constitutes a nutritionally balanced meal while learning the fundamentals of proper eating and table manners.
Children deliver and serve the food themselves and eat at their desks in the classrooms with their teachers. Each week, different students are appointed kyushoku toban – lunch staff. The process of taking responsibility to prepare, serve, eat and clean up after lunch gives school children a real work experience. These kinds of cooperative activities help to build a sense of service and a spirit of harmony. In addition, lunchtime presents an opportunity to apply skills learned in homemaking, social studies, biology and other subjects.
Students also learn about how we get our food: the fishing and farming industries are introduced, as well as food production, processing and marketing. And once a year, some schools invite parents to a tasting of the lunch menus and to learn about balanced nutrition.
Japan’s school lunch program has its roots in the late nineteenth century, when an elementary school in Yamagata Prefecture served lunches to students from poor families. Much later, in the face of food shortages following the Second World War, school lunch programs provided necessary nutrition to many school children. In 1954, the school lunch law was passed and by the mid-fifties, such programs were in place throughout most of Japan. During this era, menus featured powdered skim milk and bread. In following decades, typical kyushoku menus served age-pan (fried bread), soft noodles with meat sauce, cream stew, curry rice and milmake, flavored milk. It was not until 1976 that rice-based menus were officially introduced.
Today’s school lunches are well-balanced and provide about one-third the daily nutritional requirements of each student. A typical menu might include a staple dish of either bread, rice or noodles; a soup dish; and a meat or fish dish followed by dessert. Today’s kyushoku menus comprise a wide variety of dishes representing not only Japanese cuisine, but foods from various countries. During the school year, students experience a wide-ranging and international palate of tastes that might include such varied offerings as Korean bibimbap, rice topped with seasoned meat and vegetables; tandoori chicken; spaghetti pescatore; and minestrone soup. There are also schools whose menus include regional foods or vegetables harvested locally, to help students better appreciate their own hometowns.
For those Japanese reminiscing about their childhood, the very thought of gakko-kyushoku triggers myriad memories of old friends and classroom camaraderie. To nurture this nostalgia, there are restaurants that serve kyushoku menus, and special Internet sites that sell typical kyushoku foods to help feed the craving for the lunchtime lessons of school days past.