School Lunch and Neoliberalization

At the core of parental concerns were structural factors that seemed to make school lunches more vulnerable to contamination. Neoliberal reform has profoundly transformed the school lunch programme since the 1980s, subjecting it to severe cost squeezes. In 1985, the Ministry of Education issued a decree on the rationalization of the school lunch programme, promoting outsourcing to the private sector and the use of consolidated food preparation centres over in-school preparation. Currently, less than 50% of schools prepare school lunches on site and the rate has been declining, while some schools are outsourcing preparation of lunches to convenience store chains like Seven Eleven.27 The overall fiscal health of local municipalities also deteriorated due to the burst of the bubble economy, the subsequent decline in tax revenues, the aging population, and increasing social service costs. The Ministry of Home Affairs (Jichisho) instructed municipalities to reduce the number of public servants during an administrative reform in 1994, which pressured municipal governments to reduce the number of kitchen staff.2 Some localities are known for high-quality school lunches such as Imabari city (Ehime prefecture), Kitakata city (Fukushima prefecture),29 and Kikuchi City that use local organic produce in their school lunches.30 However, the overall deteriorating fiscal health of many local governments has made the cost of school lunches a serious concern for many local governments.31 For instance, Osaka city started to supply school lunches to middle schools by purchasing ready-made meals, but the quality was so bad and the quantity insufficient that students and parents complained.32

Furthermore, some families cannot afford to pay school lunch fees, which average 4,100 yen (about US $40) per month.33 According to the

  • 27Shirota, ‘Gakko kyushoku’.
  • 28 Gakko Kyushoku News, ‘Gorikatsuchi’.
  • 29 Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, ‘Gakko kyushoku’.
  • 30Watanabe, ‘Kumamoto ken’.
  • 31 Schebath, ‘Financial Stress in the Japanese Local Public Sector in the 1990s’.
  • 32Asahi Shimbun, ‘Osaka shi’.
  • 33 Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, ‘Gakko kyushoku’.

Ministry of Education’s 2012 survey, about 1% of students were not paying school lunch fees.[1] The fiscal difficulties of both local municipalities and parents make school lunches highly cost sensitive.

After the nuclear accident, the price of foods from the affected areas declined. For instance, peaches from Fukushima witnessed a 49% decline in 2010 and pears a 38% decline in comparison with 2010. This was despite the fact that 2011 was generally a good year for farmers in Japan, with relatively higher prices for vegetables and fruits.[2] Given that the school lunch programmes had become very cost sensitive, the cheaper price of foods sourced from the affected areas made them potentially attractive as ingredients for school lunches. Some observers noted that the ‘caesium beef ended up in school lunches precisely for this reason.[3]

On the other hand, the economic stake in the school lunch programme is significant given its size and regularity. School lunches are big business, estimated to be worth 4.7 billion dollars annually.[4] Therefore, producers have a huge stake in having their foods served as part of school lunches. To give an example: one food item that was heavily contaminated by the nuclear accident is mushrooms. Mushrooms were likely to absorb caesium from the logs they grow on, and they were one of the foods that constantly appeared on the government contamination list. Seeing the reputation of their products decline sharply, producers countered this trend by holding a ‘mushroom day’ at Tokyo public schools, conducting classes on the nutritional benefits of mushrooms and donating mushrooms to school lunches that were fed to more than 29,000 kids in 2014. The project was funded by the Forestry Agency, which had budgeted $20 million of the government’s ‘mushroom emergency rejuvenation and restoration’ initiative.[5] It was couched as a programme to counter fuhyohigai or ‘harmful rumours’ that caused consumers to avoid buying food that was deemed risky due to the nuclear disaster. Similarly, when mandarin oranges were found to be contaminated and removed from school lunches in Yokohama and Kamakura, the producer associations lobbied fiercely against such actions, which they deemed unnecessary because the contamination did not exceed the government standard. In Odawara city, mandarin orange growers lobbied the legislature to issue a declaration requesting municipalities not to avoid their product, as the contamination was well below the standard. And in Tochigi Prefecture, beef producers also lobbied the municipal government to serve their product in school lunches.[6]

  • [1] Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, ‘Gakko kyushokuhi’. Therehave been controversies around whether the failure of some parents to pay the school lunch fee isdue to true economic hardship or not. Some newspaper articles have tended to frame it asanalogous to welfare cheating, which echoes the conservative inclination to demonize the poorfor abusing social services. I could not find data to convincingly show that the failure to pay wasnot due to poverty. Furthermore, public assistance to the poor has been declining over the pastdecades, given the neoliberal restructuring of the welfare system in Japan. See Fujisawa ‘Gakkokyushokuhimi’.
  • [2] Ouse, ‘Fukko kara 1 nen Fukushima yureru kome sanchi'.
  • [3] Kitamura, ‘Kyushoku ni tsukawareta’.
  • [4] Gakko Kyushoku News, ‘Gakko kyushoku no shijo kibo’.
  • [5] Japan Agricultural Newspaper, ‘Genboku hoshi’.
  • [6] Nakano, ‘Gakko kyushoku no hoshasen taisaku’.
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