Ah, school lunch in Japan. I’ve had some of the best meals served to me on those plastic lunch trays. I’ve also had some of the worst. You might remember one of my very first posts on this blog that talked about “the worst school lunch in the world.”
School lunch, or kyuushoku as it’s called here, is one of the many examples of team work displayed in Japan. The students and teachers are split into groups and given a serving duty. For example, some students serve the soup, others the main dish, etc. They do this while wearing full aprons, hair nets, and masks. The students and teachers who are not on service duty form a line, grab a tray, and pick up one of each dish. Only until everyone has been served their food and the servers have finished and taken off their serving garb can you even think about eating. But you still have to wait for everyone to put their hands together and say “itadakimasu” (I humbly accept this food). Only then can you dig in. I think this is a really nice custom as I recall my poor mother who was still in the process of trying to get all of the food on the table while her three daughters and husband were chowing down.
There are also some very interesting customs when it comes to food handling and preparation. One of our friends works at the school lunch center and says that she has to wash all fruits and vegetables three times. She also has three different aprons and must change them depending on the task (cutting vegetables, preparing food, cleaning dishes). Also, one of the staff must eat the school lunch at least half an hour before the students consume it to make sure that it’s safe to eat. Kyuushoku is probably the safest and most properly prepared meal you’re ever going to eat (a lot safer than when I cook and the 3 second rule is fully employed). It’s also really cheap for the amount and quality of food you get. I think I pay around 350 yen (~$4.50) for more food than I can comfortably eat that’s extremely fresh and healthy (no frozen food here, everything is made that day).
Chibu’s kyuushoku is very special because we actually have three farmers who grow food on the island specifically for the school lunches. While we are eating, the elementary school students read an announcement about the school lunch and tell us which vegetables came from whose garden. A typical announcement might note that the carrots and cabbage in the soup are from X-san’s garden and then go on to tell us a few factoids about a vegetable and why it’s good for us. I think it’s really great that the school lunch center takes the time to acknowledge the farmers who grow the vegetables in our lunches.
Despite the fresh and healthy meals that you are served at school, there are some drawbacks to having to eat kyuushoku every day. For one, you have to eat everything. When I first came to Chibu, I left literally around 10 grains of rice in my bowl and was promptly scolded by the elementary school student sitting next to me. The most extreme example of the enforcement of this rule is when one of the students, struggling to finish something he absolutely hated, was made to sit at the lunch table until he ate every bite. Two minutes later, the cleaning announcement came over the loud speaker and he missed his chance to play after lunch. As a teacher, I can get away with not eating everything, but I feel bad getting a free pass when the kids are forced to eat even their most hated of foods. This is why I force myself to eat my most hated meal: shishamo.
So there you have it, the wonders of kyuushoku. Even though I have to eat everything, regardless of how it tastes to me, I love being served school lunch every day. We receive a menu at the beginning of the month and I always read it, looking forward to my favorite lunches (and dreading having to eat shishamo). I think the US should take a look into Japan’s cafeterias and try to improve the school lunches. I loved tater tots and pizza as a kid, but I think there are tastier, healthier options to be found.