August 31, 2017


Locally Produced Food in School Lunches----A Challenge by Nyuzen, Japan

Keywords: Civil Society / Local Issues Education Food Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.180 (August 2017)

Japan has various school lunch programs in effect nationwide that involve advanced efforts to promote local production and consumption of food. The Third Basic Program for Shokuiku (food/ nutritional education) Promotion, effective from FY 2016 through FY 2018, aims to improve the ratio of locally produced foodstuffs used in school lunches to 30 percent or more from the current ratio of 26.9 percent, with the goal of promoting the local production local consumption movement through school lunch programs. The Basic Program for Shokuiku Promotion has been implemented since 2006 based on the Basic Law on Shokuiku enacted in 2005.

The School Lunch Program Act, revised in June 2008, also stipulates efforts to use local farm products in school lunch service according to agricultural conditions in each area and also to promote knowledge of local food culture, food industries and the natural environment of the area. The substantial aim of the act is food education through school lunch programs. At the same time, promoting use of local agricultural products can also be reliably expected to result in increased economic circulation in local areas.

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) released a guidebook to provide tips on how to use local farm products in school lunches, describing many existing examples. From these examples, we can see that a significant factor in successful attempts is the degree to which an original system can be created which actually matches the situation in the local area.

I studied all the examples from the view of local production for local consumption and then divided them into three major classes.

When a school lunch menu is planned, the amounts and kinds of food ingredients are identified and calculated in advance based on the number of students before any actual cooking takes place. The first step is pick items from the ingredients list that can be prepared locally. This is implemented throughout the nation. The next step is to establish an original menu plan according to expectations not only of how much of what items will be needed, but also with an eye on how much and what kinds of local ingredients can be harvested each season. In some areas, we see even more advanced cases, which can be called "third step" cases. There, the lunch planning staff and food ingredient producers confer with each other about the next year's lunch program beforehand so that the farmers can draft their work plans and even try raising new items in response to requests from the cooks.

This month, we introduce the case of a school lunch system practiced by Nyuzen, a town in Toyama Prefecture, through an interview with Mr. Yukihiko Tatsujiri, executive director of Nyuzen Agriculture Public Corporation in Toyama Prefecture.

Using More Local Products in School Lunches

Tatsujiri gave me the following account of his town's efforts.

"When a social movement to raise the ratio of local food ingredients in school lunches started in Japan, Nyuzen reacted quickly, setting a goal of 50 percent, higher than that the prefecture had set. We managed to reach 42 percent at the peak but the percentage has dropped these years to around 37 to 38 percent. The ratio of vegetables alone stays at about 48 percent. This year, we want to get the total ratio back to 40 percent.

"We have two junior high schools and six elementary schools in this town and five of them have school lunch service. The number of children having school lunches is 1,600 to 1,800.

"Years before, we were procuring vegetables from market via the designated suppliers, and a large portion of the vegetables we purchased were not locally produced vegetables. In 2003, we decided to shift to using locally produced vegetables in the school lunches in order to support, agriculture, the main industry of this town. At first, the decision led to conflicts with the suppliers. The town, school staffs and farms all came together as a team and tried to explain our decision and policy, so we could finally gain their approval.

"In order to raise the ratio of local food ingredients in school lunches, we visit farms individually every March, the fiscal year end. During this visit, we inquire about their possible supply schedule for the next year, asking what products, how much of each and in which month they can be supplied to us during the year ahead. When the harvest time approaches, we visit them again to see how the harvests of their crops and vegetables are turning out. We may happen to receive 200 kilograms of an item though it had been planned to be 100 kilograms, or the opposite may be the case because of poor weather or other reasons.

"School lunches are prepared by the cooking staff in each school. Just after the 10th of each month, detailed information on vegetables to be supplied the next month is provided to those concerned. Based on that information, lunch menus for the next month are planned. Around the 25th of each month, we receive requests from each school for ingredients, specifying the amounts and supply dates. Then we visit the farms again to make definitive supply requests. Managed by the board of education, nutritionists gather every month to plan the menu.

"When we were purchasing food ingredients exclusively from the designated suppliers, the ingredients were delivered in precisely the portions that we had ordered for cooking, but we cannot expect exact amounts if we use more locally-produced ingredients. When the board of education tells each school, 'This is the amount we could secure this week, so please keep your use of it to this,' schools voluntarily make adjustments to their menu saying, 'We'll use this ingredient tomorrow,' 'We'll cook them today,' and so on. If 10 kilograms of a product is the maximum volume per day from a producer, we deliver it to one school on the first day and to another on the second day.

"Products are brought into the Agriculture Public Corporation the day before, and we distribute them to each school after inspecting them. If we find any unsatisfactory products in our inspection, we ask the producers to exchange them for good ones. When we have complaints from schools, we run to the school to solve the problem."

Children's Reactions

Since they started using more locally-produced ingredients for school meals, children's reactions to school lunches have clearly changed. They clean their plate, leaving nothing. If any new teachers happen to leave some food, the children point it out and say, "That's not right."

Tatsujiri says, "At elementary schools in Nyuzen, every student from the first to sixth grades eats in one lunch room. If the fifth and sixth grade students find any first or second graders who are struggling to eat everything on their plate, they tell the younger children, 'I will have the food you don't want, so take what you want from my plate in exchange.' This is how they achieve 'no leftovers' from their meal.

"When we ask children how their meals were, they say, ' The local products we had today were delicious' or 'The food was tasty yesterday and today too.' We never hear negative words."

Educating Parents and School Cooking Staffs

Vegetables from suppliers are cheaper but not fresh, while locally-produced vegetables are reassuringly fresh. Vegetables sold at local stores and markets are rarely damaged or bruised, but local vegetables are generally delivered before farm insects can be washed off completely. Children find small bugs that even the cooks missed. They go home and tell their mothers about the meal, saying "The school meal was delicious even though I found bugs in my food."

Then, says Tatsujiri, "Their mothers panic and run into our office. I ask them how the vegetables were when they were children, and they say, 'We often found bugs on the vegetables, but didn't care.' So I say, 'Why don't you point that out to your children?' In this way we educate parents.

"When we show the essays written by children about school meals cooked with locally-produced vegetables to the parents, they are delighted that their children care more deeply about the local vegetables than they themselves had. They will remember the taste of meals from childhood even when they are grown. In addition, more children are interested in becoming farmers.

"We ask the cooking staff to wash the vegetables more thoroughly and blanch them if necessary. Blanching them causes most small insects to rise to the water surface, so we can easily remove them. It is natural for local vegetables to have wormholes.

"The cooks say, 'Why do you bring in vegetables with wormholes? You can buy vegetables with no worms or bruises at stores if you pay for them.' So I tell them, 'Don't you think it is important to buy safe vegetables from local farmers? Please cook the local vegetables in a way that brings out the taste so that children can enjoy eating them.' To be more efficient, I go to the schools to teach the cooking staff how to sharpen knives. I was first told that knives can be sharpened for as cheaply as 500 yen (about US$4.5) at stores, so I spent one month visiting each school to teach them the technique, saying 'Who is paying the 500 yen? Why don't you do what I do?'"

Supporting Farms and Expanding Our Effort

Nyuzen wants to support agriculture because it is the town's major industry. They ask local producers to put a price on their products, for example, the price of one onion. Then, referring to the highest market price, they offer to pay them the highest price throughout the year. When producers price an onion at 100 yen (US 90 cents), they try to pay them 100 yen. The producers always have to be the top priority. That's why Tatsujiri says they determine the price based on the producers' asking price.

In return, he says, "We make requests for things such as better selections in product quality and sorting by size. If they can respond to our requests, we pay their prices without much negotiation, and may even raise them to 110 yen (about US$1) if the products are of high quality.

We even ask elderly people, 'How about delivering products from your garden, let's say just once next month?' Once they deliver some, they are pleased to earn a little extra spending money. Then we start exchanging words like, 'Can I deliver more?' 'Why not?' I sometimes go around to several farms in town and discuss whether they can grow other kinds of vegetables. When I look at lists of vegetables grown in the town, the number of items has been gradually increasing since I started my current work in 2009.

"We want to give good food to children so we have been working hard with the farmers. When we see former schoolchildren who are now in their 20s or nearly 30 years old, they recall that the school lunches were good."

Fureai Lunches

"We host Fureai Lunches," says Tatsujiri, (Fureai means "interaction" in Japanese). "These enable school children to communicate directly with farmers over school lunch. We secure a budget to organize it at three schools per year. The children really enjoy this lunchtime. After the Fureai Lunch which is just about 30 minutes, they write as much as three or four pages about it. We can see how happy they are from their reactions. When the children show their writings to their parents, the parents say, 'Our children learn things we never thought about -- and even more' and 'Please have this kind of event more often.'"

"This person grew this vegetable for today's lunch." Farmers are surprised to be introduced like this, but they are happy. Children give greater applause and nicer words to the farmers than anyone else, so the farmers are encouraged to keep going.

The Future of Agriculture in Nyuzen

Luckily, Nyuzen welcomes young people who start to work at farms. Most of them are young couples who are engaged in agriculture together, so the town has no problem securing the next generation of farmers.

Young farmers teamed up around 1996 -- when the town bought three unmanned helicopters with government subsidies. They asked the sons of local farmers to operate the helicopters, saying "Why not play with them while working on the farm?" They also paid them wages for it. Since then, young sons who had been unwilling to pursue agriculture have come together as one in farming.

At the beginning, it was just for fun for them, but gradually they started to get new ideas and motivation. Now, the town has about 167 young farmers.

There are about 3,700 hectares of agricultural land in all of Nyuzen. Farmers cultivate 75 percent of the land under certain contracts. As time goes by, some old farmers will find it difficult to keep working on a rice field due to their age or lack of machinery. Tatsujiri says, "We visit such old farmers and ask them if they know any younger farmers they would like to appoint as a successor. If they do, we make a phone call and ask the person. Most of the time, the appointee says 'OK.'

"Therefore, we utilize most of the 3,700 hectares of land. Only 40 ares are not being cultivated. Even in mountainous areas where boars and monkeys live, young people such as high school students and members of youth groups at the town's commerce and industry association try new things saying, 'As we cannot grow rice here, let's try Japanese evergreen oak (Quercus acuta) and/or perilla (Perilla frutescens).' They work on new agricultural products as 'sixth industry'* products. Agricultural corporations have been launched in the town one after another, and now we have 126 corporations."

* "Sixth industry" is a concept of initiatives for expanding primary industries such as farming and fishing, from merely harvesting crops, fish, etc., into secondary and tertiary industries, such as producing and selling processed food items utilizing harvested produce as ingredients. The "sixth" concept derives from the idea of "multiplying" the primary, secondary, and tertiary industries (i.e., 1 x 2 x 3 = 6). Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) promotes sixth industry initiatives.

From this year, a group about a dozen of young farmers' wives launched their own attempts to grow new products which haven't been grown in the town. Tatsujiri sometimes gives them advice while accompanying them to seedling shops or training programs.

Even people living other parts in Toyama come a long way to buy produce at the farm markets in this town. The annual total sales last year were 180 million yen (about US$1.62 million). About 450 local farmers come by, bringing their produce one after another. Their produce is cheap and fresh, so even if they are piled high on the tables in the morning, they are almost gone in the afternoon, and the market is empty by evening. Most of the vegetables are almost sold out as early as nine to half past 10 in the morning.

In Nyuzen, increased use of local produce in school lunches has gone smoothly by having the Agriculture Public Corporation act as a facilitator between the staff in charge of school lunches and the farmers. Food education through the use of local produce at schools will have a favorable influence not only on the children but also the parents and cooking staff at schools. The Fureai Lunch evokes happiness among the farmers. Efforts to train successors pay off with a playful challenging spirit that catches young people's hearts. We look forward to seeing how Nyuzen's school lunch initiative using local produce will evolve and expand in the future.

Written by Junko Edahiro