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More than 95% of children in the United States aged between 5-17 years attend school. Among these schools, approximately 99% of all public schools and 83% of all public and private schools take part in the 'National School Lunch Program'. (Future of Children, 110-11). What else do these kids have in common, apart from attending school and eating school lunches? The answer: A lack of proper nutrition resulting from an unbalanced diet that comprises of foods with minimum nutritional status, such as sodas and 'Happy Meals' , a lack of physical activity that adds to the problems of a lazy lifestyle and finally, lack of an effective health education program to tackle this situation from its very roots . What is the most common outcome of the above scenario?- A three fold increase in childhood obesity and overweight prevalence rates compared to the figures reported in the 1980s ( around 11%). (Lawrence, Hazlett, Hightower, 147 & CDC, 1 ). Many laws have been passed and many policies have been implemented. Yet considering the grim statistics mentioned above, have we really done enough? Can more be done? I believe that we could benefit from adopting principles from other countries, where effective health education programs have been implemented, along with healthy food options for children . My model for this topic- Japan.
It is without any doubt, that schools could contribute much to create awareness about health and lifestyle related issues among children. Although, many schools today do provide a good number of healthy options on their menu, sadly, students continue to gorge on their pizzas, burgers and Doritos while occasionally sampling their bowl of salads and greens. This is clearly due to the 'fast food frenzy' of the American culture that has penetrated well into the threshold of the school cafeteria. As a matter of fact, many schools today have their own mini stations of Taco Bell or KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) providing students with an array of unhealthy options that students readily pay for out of their pockets. The California High School Fast Food survey published in 2003, revealed that around one- fourth of the 173 districts sold food from fast food brands such as Taco Bell, Domino's, Subway and Pizza hut in high schools. (The future of children,116-17) As students exit cafeterias, they are beckoned by the presence of vending machines that continues to provide its own share of unhealthy snacks; an array of sodas, packet chips, candies, chewing gums etc. Such options reduce the likelihood of students consuming healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables.
So, what can the American school system do in order to feed more nutrient rich, healthy, hearty meals to its children, who are clearly obsessed with burgers and pizzas? What can we do to make American kids eat their broccolis without having to hear the infamous word 'yuck', as a stubborn form of refusal? I believe, we could learn much from the Japanese model of school lunches and could incorporate some of their practices into the American system.
Lunch time in Japanese schools portray a completely different scenario from the busy, noisy and disenchanted cafeterias in American schools. Here is a typical scene of what goes on during lunch time in an elementary school in Japan, as described by author Nancy E. Sato: " A hot school lunch is served Monday through Friday after fourth period. Lunch is cooked on the premises by a kitchen crew, and everyone, including the principal, receives the same food. Teachers eat lunch in their class with their students. Students rotate lunch duty in which they get food from the kitchen, serve it to their peers, and clean up afterward. The school lunch period reveals the central features of Japanese egalitarian sentiments." ( Sato, 49).
So, what lies on the lunch tray? - A typical pattern of meal may look something like this ( the menu varies from school to school in terms of content) : a bowl of rice (the Japanese staple) with grilled chicken and stir fried vegetables, miso soup with deep fried tofu and seaweed, and fresh kiwi fruit. Basically, the monthly menu would consist of rice with either a meat or fish, an assortment of seasonal vegetables and a carton of milk .(Barber,1) Many schools maintain their own little garden of vegetables, providing a direct source of ingredients to be used in the meal preparations. (Grady, Christiansen,Schimdt, 2)
In the year 2005, the Japanese government enacted 'Shokuiku'- 'The Basic law on Dietary Education' which was directed towards promoting childhood dietary education. As a consequence of the 'Shokuiku', Japan produced a highly qualified class of dieticians and nutrition experts who started occupying positions as health education teachers in Japan's schools. These dieticians were employed to teach health and nutrition related classes in Japan's schools as per the guidelines of the Japanese ministry of education. These teachers of 'diet and nutrition' carefully plan the school meal, monitor preparation of the meals, conduct classes on health and nutrition, and also provide individual counseling to students on health related issues. (Nakamura, 1,3)
So what could America really learn from the Japanese system? My propositions are simple and as follows:
We should concentrate on creating an environment in which students could actually enjoy and appreciate their meals by participating in the lunch time process just like the Japanese kids as mentioned in page 3 . Our cafeterias are a medley of several sights: students impatiently standing in the never ending queues to pick up their lunches, students walking around relentlessly to find seats that are not taken or 'reserved' by others who want to sit exclusively with members of their own cliques and finally few students sitting alone and neglected at some distant corner of the cafeteria. Engaging the students in distribution of food, or perhaps even in the cooking process (supervised of course) could create a better understanding of the meals they are eating and what goes on to make them. A lunch environment where all sit and eat together could help build ties and a foster sense of cooperation amongst fellow students.
Maintaining a small vegetable garden in the backyard of the school could help the school secure some of its own food supplies. At the same time, it could provide the ground for interactive nutrition education programs that would not only engage students but at the same time improve perceptions about health and nutrition. Planting their own vegetables could eventually encourage students to eat them, the products of their own labor. They might eat their own grown spinach, broccoli or other greens without perhaps having to say 'Yuck!' A study conducted at three schools in California looked into the effects of the systems of nutrition education implemented on those schools, by assessing their fourth graders. The fourth graders were examined on the basis of their knowledge on nutrition and their preferred vegetables. The groups looked as follows: one that received nutrition education, the other with nutrition education in conjunction with growing their own vegetables, and the third that played the control group. The results showed that children who had nutrition education and children who had nutrition education along with planting their own vegetables scored much higher than those in the control group. Moreover, those who planted their own vegetables increased their liking for some vegetables. (The future of children, 128). The Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley, California is an example of where such a program has been effectively implemented.
Is health education in American schools adequate? On average, around five hours a year is spent on health education curricula in public schools. This is in part due to a lack of necessary resources required to keep such courses running and also a tendency for most schools to allocate more time on core subjects like Math, English etc, thus making health education time constrained with lesser degree of importance.(Future of children,120). We clearly need to dedicate enough time and provide more priority towards a well balanced curricula that encompasses education on nutrition and health. This will create greater awareness and learning amongst students regarding health related issues. We could employ licensed dieticians and nutritionists just like Japan to closely monitor and supervise the planning and preparation of food inside schools, to ensure that they conform to health standards and provide balanced meals to all students. Nutritionists and dieticians could also provide individual counseling to students to address specific health issues and could also design special and carefully prepared meals to provide for the needs of students facing health problems such as obesity or overweight.
The meal menu, the most critical and enticing aspect of the food in the school that children look forward to, should reflect variations with practicality. Unlike Japan with its limited variety of dishes during lunch time, my advice is to expand the variety of dishes available to students. However, such varieties should include healthy, nutritious food items, and definitely fruits and vegetables. This should be implemented along with a tight restriction on the availability of fast food, especially vending machines serving snacks and other unhealthy items which are outside the funding of the federal lunch program. Laws could be passed to enforce such restrictions. Many states, as a matter of fact, have already adopted such laws. A study conducted around 2003 showed that schools which had effective policies to restrict the minimally nutritious food list as mentioned above, experienced a sharp decline in the number of students purchasing snack food or fast food as opposed to the situation in those schools which had more lax policies. (The future of Children, 123). In Japanese schools for instance, the sight of vending machines or fast food stations inside the school cafeteria is virtually absent. (Barber,1)
There are however certain limitations to the Japanese model: high schools are are excluded from the food program funded by the government, and for children enrolled in elementary, middle school and junior high schools, parents are required to pay quite a hefty sum as part of the program, in order to allow their children to benefit from the school meals. While the Japanese parents gladly pay the lunch expenses to see their children eat right, here in America, such so called additional costs may come under debate and become an issue. However, American parents, just like their Japanese counterparts , would most likely want to see their children eat right at school. Busy parents do not have the time to brown bag lunches for their children or address lifestyle related issues and hence look to schools to aid in this matter.
Considering the fact that most children eat a large portion of their daily food in school while at the same time spend a very important duration of their day at the same place, schools thus serve as the ideal setting for the development of healthy eating habits and lifestyles . By adopting some of Japanese concepts into our own education system, we might be able to provide a healthy solution to the unhealthy reality that plagues American schools and its children. We do not need to switch to 'sushi' or 'miso soup' to achieve this purpose. Clever and effective policies could help encourage both healthy eating as well as an understanding of healthy habits and lifestyles.