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Social Spotlight: School lunches and child poverty in Japan

In this Sept. 29, 2016 file photo, junior high school students are seen eating school lunches in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Spring break has been over for about a month now, and students are back to their school routines: classes, clubs and playing with their friends. However, there is one other thing that children look forward to when the new school year starts: school lunches.

    The lunches aren't just a fun time, with students chatting as they chow down, but are also a form of dietary education -- a way to teach children about eating a balanced meal. In recent years, however, researchers have pointed out how important the lunches are as a source of nutrition. The reason: for some children, their school lunch will be the most nutritious meal they get all day. For a few, it will be the only full meal.

    Japan's child poverty rate is 16.3 percent. One in six Japanese children is from a household below the poverty line. With fixed expenses like rent and utilities eating up much of these families' budgets, it's spending on food that gets squeezed when there isn't enough money coming in. And so a family's economic woes end up dictating what and how much food a child can get.

    A Tokyo Metropolitan Government midterm report on children's living conditions released in February this year revealed that many children in the capital do not have "sufficient" diets. The survey covered students in the fifth grade of elementary school and the second grade of junior high. The households of about 10 percent of the subjects reported that, at least once in the past year, they had not been able to buy enough food for financial reasons.

    Some 10 percent of the students also reported that they ate vegetables two to three days a week or less, excluding school lunches. In particular, among children of the neediest families -- which make up 6 to 7 percent of the subjects -- between 3 and 6 percent were found to be eating vegetables, fish or meat once per week or less.

    A survey of children's dietary habits also found that the meals of kids living in poverty skew heavily to cheap carbohydrates, with few foods rich in protein and vitamins. There is also an endless stream of reports from schools and social workers of students who get nothing for dinner except a bowl of rice topped with flavored sprinkles, or those who return from summer vacation thinner than before the break due to the lack of a school lunch.

    For children who can't get the nutrition they need at home, school lunches become a lot more than dietary education. For children at the bottom of the income strata, school lunches are the most important source of food.

    Unfortunately, many junior high schools and most high schools provide no school lunch. In some prefectures in Japan, there are municipalities where even public junior highs do not offer lunches, with Kanagawa Prefecture at the top of the list. All told, 11.2 percent of public junior high students across the country do not have school lunches.

    In recent years, NPO-run "kids' cafeterias" that provide free meals to children have received quite a bit of publicity. However, a single kid's cafeteria can only help about 10 to 20 children, and most are only open about once a month. School lunches, however, are offered every school day.

    Aya Abe

    At the very least, all public junior high and high schools -- especially high schools that educate large numbers of economically disadvantaged students -- ought to provide school lunches. After all, can we allow children to go hungry in a country with such plentiful food? (By professor Aya Abe, Tokyo Metropolitan University)

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