NHK News Commentators Bureau: Thinking About School Lunch & Poverty

Sakiko Gan, Atomi Gakuen Women’s University
Originally published April 4, 2019 on NHK News Commentators Bureau
Rough Translation Project:
Informal translation provided by Alexis Agliano Sanborn



1 in 7 children in Japan live in poverty (14%). This figure is considered high compared to other developed countries and was the impetus behind the passage of the 2013 “Child Poverty Prevention Law.” Under this law, the government and prefectures develop policies to combat poverty of children, in addition to researching and promoting supportive measures. This year marks 5 years since the passage of this law.

When studying poverty through the lens of school lunch, is important to note that there are disparities among local governments, including the percentage of meals available in junior high schools, a reduction in the rate of implementation of meals at regular high schools, and problems with students skipping or missing meals. With these concepts in mind, I would like to discuss changing from fee-based system to a free school lunch system.

Researchers have found that household disparities impact a child's diet and nutrition. School lunches play a major role in closing this gap. Those in poverty are able to supplement their diet through school lunch, consuming the necessary protein and vitamins.

In middle schools meals, meals that serve a main starch (such as bread or rice) and milk are known as a “complete meal".” These complete meals are in place at 99% of elementary schools throughout the country, and 85% of junior high schools. At the remaining 15% of junior high schools, many students must rely on bringing a bento from home or purchasing some bread or other snack.

In areas that may not have school lunch, there is the economic burden of school lunch fees when entering into some schools or the inability for families to be offered assistance from the government. Regional inequality exists: if you do not have school lunch, you cannot receive support for your lunch. There is also a bias against the “complete lunch” - many municipalities in the Kinki region, parts of western Japan, Kanagawa Prefecture do not offer full lunch to junior high school students.

School Lunch & Public Middle Schools

The following two points are considered to be the reason for the gap between meals offered at junior high compared to elementary schools:

(1) Although lunches have been served in elementary schools since before World War II, elementary school as a system has been compulsory for decades prior. Meanwhile, it was only until after the World War II that junior high school became compulsory, and that some schools began offering lunches. Essentially, elementary and junior high school lunches do not share the same history.

(2) In areas where school lunches are not conducted at junior high schools, there is an information gap between the school, parents, and teachers - many remain unaware that it is more common to have lunch at junior high school.

Working mothers and single-parent families are also increasing. Of surveys conducted in regions that do not provide school lunch there is a strong desire for it to be implemented. On the other hand, teachers and staff are concerned about the burden of implementing new meals and systems into their school. Other concerns include unpaid school meal expenses (overdue fees) and requesting these sums to be the work of the principal or homeroom teacher. Meanwhile, some students support eating a lunch that they like or bringing a lunch if they don’t like the school lunch menu, but even within that students/parents complain about having to make a packed lunch everyday. Even in a local government without junior high school meals, school food services has become one of the mayoral election points. The good news is that the implementation rate of food service for junior high school students is gradually increasing.

Overdue School Lunch Fees

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced survey results that the percentage of elementary and junior high school students who have unpaid lunch expenses is 0.9% and the percentage of the unpaid amount is 0.4%.

The unpaid rate of 0.9% nominally high compared to, for example, that the National Health Insurance fee delinquency rate which is close to 10%. Some claim that parents who default on payments have no sense of responsibility. In fact the MEXT survey states that schools do not blame the financial or economic problems of the parents, but the lack of “responsibility and knowledge of social norms of the parents” or the “morals of the parents.”

However, it is important to note that it is impossible for schools to know exactly whether there is a financial problem for parents or not. Even if parents appear to have income from work, they may not even tell their families about the school lunch debt and may not want others to know.

Comparing a 2009 to 2016 fiscal survey, the amount of money not paid for lunches is always higher in junior high school than in primary school. If the main problem is a "parent's moral problem", it is strange that junior high school student's parent's moral is lower than elementary school student parents. Is it correct to define the cause as a "problem of morality"? According to a survey in fiscal 2016, it is also known that children with nonpayment for expenses paid to schools other than school lunch expenses rise to 40% in junior high school students, compared with approximately 15% of primary school children.

Turning Towards Free Lunches

Of the various school expenses that exist in Japan, parents only bear the cost of material expenses (books, etc), while labor and equipment expenses are covered by taxes. There also exists a system called School Support that relieves the burden of lunch expenses for those with financial burdens. However, this support system is not commonly known, or its application is embarrassing to request.

Recently local governments have been increasing free or partially subsidized lunches in elementary schools. Approximately 30% of the municipalities in the country have already provided support for food expenses without income restrictions. We are now at the stage where we should consider making the lunch free of charge as a national system so that everyone can eat at peace without worrying whether parents will pay for lunch.