Why We Should Follow The Japanese And Care About What Schoolkids Eat

When the the news broke that traces of horse meat had been found in school dinners, my Japanese girlfriend laughed. School dinners in Japan are something the kids don't fake illness to avoid and we'd to well to follow their lead.
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When the the news broke that traces of horse meat had been found in school dinners, my Japanese girlfriend laughed. School dinners in Japan are something the kids don't fake illness to avoid and we'd to well to follow their lead.

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A while ago I was talking with my girlfriend Izumi, who is Japanese, about our respective school days. She attended a public high school in Fukuoka city which she described as 'completely normal'. I lived in a smallish Hampshire town and attended a local comprehensive of which, in my adolescent imagination was an authoritarian hellscape, but which I now realise was a fairly normal, lower middle class school. We got around to the subject of school meals. I remembered a kind of feral scramble to get to the trays of food in the first thirty seconds, while there was still some semblance of warmth from the heat lamps. I remember the various trays and drinks jugs that were well known for being spat in by passers-by and were therefore to be avoided. I remember frozen and reheated veg, the worst sausages I have ever eaten (where did they find them? It reminds me of the old quote about how men who like sausages and justice should never see how they are made). I remember greasy pizza slices wrapped in cellophane, bright yellow custard and slow-moving gravy.

In Japan, it seemed it was a different story. Izumi remembered her school meals with pleasure: here were dishes cooked on site in a properly equipped kitchen by a qualified chef. They always had fresh vegetables, good ‘small’ fish (like sardines rather than ‘big’ fish like tuna) and small but good quality portions of meat (although not every day). A glass of full fat milk was enjoyed, and sometimes a simple dessert of fresh fruit. They used to look forward to lunch, the students took turns donning aprons and serving lunch to their classmates, then everyone cleaned up afterwards, it was a noisy but civilised affair. She paid £1.75 (250 yen) for her meals, which is about the average, I paid £2.50 which is slightly above the British average.

In primary school 99% of Japanese children take school meals and the figure is 82% for secondary schools. The national policy has lunches are planned by locally assigned dieticians and nutritionists, and are usually made from scratch. There is also a strong emphasis on local produce and regional specialities, with exotic and one-off dishes cooked for special occasions several times a year.

When I mentioned jokingly that ‘there was always the vending machine’ Izumi was appalled, ‘Why would you have a vending machine in a school?’ Educationally it doesn't really make a lot of sense, what purpose do vending machines serve? What need do they fulfil?  They exist solely to make money from overpriced and unhealthy confectionery so the fact that there are machines in thousands of schools up and down the country speaks volumes about the willingness of those in charge to allow private interests into the hallways of British schools.

So when the the news broke on Sunday that traces of horse meat had been found in ‘beef’ cottage pies sold to 47 schools in Lancashire, it was not a huge surprise. Of course the 'scandal' of the horse meat saga is got nothing to do with horses really, it’s about food being improperly labelled and products being sold under false pretences. Whether you think it’s right to eat horse or not is irrelevant, the point is that when you buy something that is labelled beef it should be beef.

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These contaminated products are the cheapest kind of ready meal, the kind of products people buy because they can’t afford anything else. The wealthy businessmen who sell them have admitted they'd never eat them, George Osbourne refused to eat one, I'd never eat them either and I'm neither a millionaire nor a baron. When it’s an adult purchasing a Findus lasagne or a pack of ten pence burgers then you can argue that they have made a choice, even if their choice is only limited to cheapest and poorest quality food. The old conservative ethos about pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps, an ethos very much at the core of this government, says that if you can’t afford to buy decent food then it’s because of the poor decisions and life choices you have made, or it's simply laziness. But you can’t expect children to take responsibility for their own circumstances, much less when the cheap and nasty ready meals in question are provided as part of their school lunches. Various parties have blamed the local authorities for driving down standards by offering contracts to the lowest bidder, the local authority, naturally enough, said that budget cuts forced their hand. But aren't we just cutting off our noses to spite our faces by feeding such substandard meals to schoolchildren? Isn't it in all our interests to look after children properly?

The chain of events which lead to contaminated cottage pies in Lancashire schools is long and convoluted, but it’s clear that it is government has more interest in handing out contracts to private companies than in ensuring school children get a decent meal, and it's a sorry state of affairs when the very worst food products we have to offer are the ones that end up on the school lunch tables. Japanese school lunches are expensive, their program is amongst the most costly in the world, but perhaps that’s because they think their schoolchildren are worth it. If you want to know what this government really thinks our children are worth, then have a good look at the cottage pies on their plates.