EDITORIAL: Removal of milk from school lunches sparks debate over dietary habits
Milk doesn’t go well with Japanese cuisine, called “washoku,” does it? This simple question has provoked a heated controversy over school lunch menus.
Sanjo, a city in Niigata Prefecture known as a rice production area, has decided to stop serving milk in its school lunches for four months from December this year on a trial basis. The decision represents a departure from a national tradition. School meals in this country almost always are served with milk.
Sanjo’s decision was a response to complaints by parents that milk doesn’t fit in well with the washoku meals featuring mainly locally produced rice and vegetables that had begun to be offered at schools in the city.
The menu for one day in May, for example, consisted of Japanese royal ferns and bamboo shoots boiled slowly in soy broth, a trout that has been sprinkled with salt and broiled, white rice steamed with red adzuki beans, plus green peas and clear soup with steamed egg custard.
Even such traditional Japanese-style meals are always served with milk at school.
This is a tradition that started soon after the end of World War II when powdered skim milk began to be served at schools nationwide. Since then, milk has been an essential part of school lunches in this country.
Sanjo’s move, which has been seen as a rebel against convention, has brought on spirited debates over the pros and cons in discussion forums on the Internet and in TV talk shows.
Proponents say Japanese-style meals should be served with miso soup and green tea. But critics argue that this is a matter of personal preference.
Some people voice nutritional concerns that the elimination of milk from school lunch menus could result in calcium deficiency among children in their growth periods. But others contend that milk doesn’t suit the physical makeup of Japanese.
Lurking behind this milk controversy, it seems, are the anxiety and doubts that Japanese people are feeling about their dietary habits despite the abundance of food in this country.
The history of school lunches in Japan dates to the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Originally, they were intended for students from poor families who were unable to bring their own lunches to school.
A typical menu was made up of rice balls, grilled fish and pickles. Such frugal meals were common among Japanese households in those days.
As the Japanese economy started growing rapidly after the war, triggering the massive migration of the rural population to urban areas, the nation’s culinary tradition began to fade amid a plethora of foodstuffs of all kinds, from high-end items to junk food. Since that era, a growing number of Japanese have become confused by a flood of information for fine food lovers and health conscious consumers.
The situation appears to have increased public expectations for school lunches, which have a good nutritional balance.
Let us stop to think what desirable meals mean in the first place.
The news that washoku was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in December 2013 is still fresh in our memory.
That means Japanese culinary culture, which makes the most of fresh food in season grown in a favorable natural environment, has been internationally recognized as healthy and delicious.
The key question is not whether milk goes well with Japanese food. Milk is an efficient source of calcium that has contributed significantly to the physical development of Japanese children as it has been served with school lunches.
But food is not a supplement. Another major cause of the calcium deficiency among Japanese is the decline of the traditional diet, which contains fish or sesame.
To make up for the elimination of milk from school lunches, Sanjo is tweaking other elements of the menu, such as the amount of rice and the contents of dishes accompanying the rice, to ensure the meals contain all the necessary nutrients.
We are willing to see how the city’s attempt to develop a well-balanced menu that reflects its reputation as a major rice production area will pan out.
That’s because truly luxurious meals may be something we are quite familiar with.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 1