The Yomiuri ShimbunSchool lunches in Japan usually include milk, but that is not the case in Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture.
During a visit in mid-June, students at the city’s Morimachi Elementary School were served rice, wakame soup, twice-cooked pork and cucumber pickled with kombu.
“Some children used to just swallow their food with milk,” said Tatsumi Takano, supervisor for the city board of education’s common school lunch kitchens. “Without milk, I feel the students are becoming able to savor the dishes.”
During the 2008 school year, the city started serving rice five days a week for school lunches. After receiving complaints that milk does not go well with rice, milk was dropped from the menu at all elementary and junior high schools between December 2014 to March 2015.
To make up for the lack of calcium, dried small fish and komatsuna greens are among the ingredients used, but this ended up creating a fixed menu with little variety.
Further reviews of this issue eventually led to the August 2015 introduction at all elementary and junior high schools in the city of “drink time” when students drink milk.
At first, milk was served just after lunch, but there was an increasing amount left over as many students complained they could not drink it because they were already full. Since last year, the schools have reviewed when to set drink time, with some providing milk just before the day’s fifth period starts — after recess and classroom cleaning — while others might do so after the second period ends.
Students at Morimachi Elementary School have drink time just before the start of the fifth period.
“Milk tastes more delicious after exercising,” a boy said.
In contrast, a girl said, “When we’re served stew or curry, if there was milk it would be easier to eat.”
In Kumano, Mie Prefecture, meanwhile, about half of the 16 elementary and junior high schools in the city let students drink milk at times other than during lunch. With rice being provided more frequently in school lunches, this approach is the result of reviews by each school into the practice of serving rice and milk together.
The ordinance for enforcement of the school lunch law assumes that such meals always come with milk.
“That does not mean milk is mandatory,” said an Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry official. “School lunches are provided based on the relevant guidelines that set the necessary amounts of nutrients such meals should contain. With milk being highly nutritious, however, it must be difficult to create proper meals without it.”
Before this school lunch series started, The Yomiuri Shimbun invited readers to send in their opinions, and many mentioned serving rice with milk.
A woman in her 70s in Kizugawa, Kyoto Prefecture, said she used to supervise school lunches as a dietitian. “I was surprised to see the lunch menus for my grandchild’s school because milk is still included as it used to be 50 years ago,” she said. “I find it strange because it’s said that school lunches are meant to pass down washoku and food culture.”
On the other hand, another woman, a teacher in her 40s at an elementary school in Saitama Prefecture, said: “Children do not mind having rice and milk together for lunch once they get used to it. At school, there’s not enough time for them to take their time to have something to drink, so I believe they can take a breather when they drink milk at lunch.”
Experts are divided on the issue.
“As some children cannot have nutritionally balanced meals at home, school lunches should at least be a chance for them to intake calcium,” said Mihoko Nagashima, head of the Japanese Association for Dietetic Research and Education. “Washoku has developed by having incorporated the features of Western cuisine. You can think of milk as supplementing what is insufficient in washoku meals.”
On the other hand, school lunch researcher Hiroko Yoshihara said serving milk at such meals is a custom that was established during the years when school lunches were based on bread. “More than a few children feel that milk doesn’t go well with rice,” she said. “I believe the time has come for us to have another look at how the custom should be.”