The USDA has released a new graphic concept to replace the old food pyramid as a guide to healthy eating. My Plate is a new approach in the United States to inform the public about creating a balanced meal. With its rich agricultural history, it’s difficult to understand how Americans have distanced themselves so completely from a balanced understanding of food and our relationship to our entire food system. The complexity of our current food dilemma is deep, but not insurmountable. School lunch programs seem to be taking a fair amount of long overdue scrutiny these days, from growing school veggie gardens to revamping lunch rooms into places of nutrition instead of fried potatoes and ketchup. When I saw the My Plate graphic, I immediately thought about school lunch in Japan.

The bento box is an image that seems indelibly linked to a Japanese school child, but in my experience teaching at eight different elementary schools it was school lunch (kyushoku) not O-bento five times a week. Being a non-dairy vegetarian, I had a mixed experience with school lunch. Something that always appears on the school lunch tray is your traditional cardboard container of milk (which students often drank in one giant gulp and quickly flattened to transform  into a sort of origami frog). Milk is a leftover dietary staple from post-WWII American reconstruction. When asked why I didn’t drink it and I told people it was because it made sick, many kids and adults said it made them sick too—but they still drank it. For the most part though, school lunch was often more than edible. An acceptable balance of nutrition, locally sourced ingredients, and food education.

Here are some Japanese school lunch principles (based completely on my own observation and experience):

  1.  5 components: Grain (usually rice), Vegetable (salad), Protein (usually fish or tofu), Soup (miso soup in various forms), Drink (99.9% of the time milk)
  2. Students serve, say grace together (itadakimasu いただきます and gochisosama-deshita ごちそうさまでした), and clean-up together after the meal.
  3. Food waste is unacceptable.  If they don’t like something, they hold their noses while they eat it.
  4. A school nutritionist is a full time position in most elementary schools.
  5. Before the meal, a group of students explain what they are eating that day, and where it came from (often highlighting local or seasonal ingredients).
  6. After lunch, all the students brush their teeth together to the same, repetitious, frustratingly catchy song (OK, I wanted to find a link so you too could experience the Japanese tooth brushing song…  I couldn’t find it, but I did discover a lot of tooth brushing songs that are even worse than the Japanese one!)
There were, to be fair, a few school lunches which significantly deviated from the regular dietary plan. These lunches were provided under the title of International Cuisine, you know, to broaden their culinary horizon. Often they would have an “American lunch,” something that was announced to the whole school right before we said grace, and would inevitably result in the entire room looking at me and wondering if the food in front of me made me feel it at home. It did not.
What I appreciated about the Japanese school lunch system was its devotion to food education. Students learned portion control, seasonal eating, appreciation for local foods, and a respect for all the time and energy that goes into bringing food to the table. I found it interesting that concerns over food allergies were shockingly absent from the lunch time scramble. And even more interesting that not only was there not food waste, but students would politely battle for leftover food from the serving tray (you cannot imagine the uncompromising power that rock-paper-scissors holds over Japanese children’s decision making).
I’m looking forward to seeing what effects the My Plate strategy has on American meal planning, perhaps school lunch will start to take a dominate role in American food education.