Guest blogger: An American teacher in Japan

*** Please welcome Mr. Ferguson from Japan (check out these lunch photos) ***

Hi everyone, my name is Daniel, or Daniel sensei as I’m called at school. Every day, I eat lunch with my little students at 3 nursery schools near Hiroshima, Japan, where I teach English.

Earlier this month, a little after I began to read Mrs. Q’s blog, we had a special lunch in celebration of hina matsuri, a holiday where an ancient story of a Japanese prince and princess is remembered through displaying ornamental dolls and preparing traditional food.
Our menu (from the left): white fish, aemono (cold vegetable dish) with carrots, cabbage, broccoli and sesame seeds, and strawberries,
sushi rice with carrots, broccoli, and shitake mushrooms, wrapped in egg or seaweed, representing the princess and prince,
soup made from konbu dashi (broth from seaweed) green onions, enoki mushrooms and colored rice dumplings.
I spoke with one of the cook teachers, as they are respectfully called in Japan, who came back from maternity leave to help with the cooking. She explained how the aesthetic for Japanese holiday foods is “komakai” meaning detailed and carefully made. It’s designed to be colorful, use several kinds of foods, and is all prepared by hand. For me, however, this meal was only to a greater degree more detailed than lunches usually are at school, which are always handmade and served by the children to other children, with real plates on tablecloths.
At lunch, we waited until all children, about 60 total, had been served soup, fish, and sushi before saying “itadakimasu”, a kind of secular grace said before eating in Japan, meaning thanks to those who prepared the food. The cook teachers also joined us and everyone thanked them for the meal they had been preparing all morning. Then they walked around the room responding to children saying “oishii” meaning delicious. And as they always do, the children ate everything, stacked their dishes, and put their chopsticks and cup away to be used again tomorrow.
As I watched children enjoy lunch, I thought about all the love being shared in the room that day, with nothing to compare it to in my experiences of school lunch in America. The most love I think I showed children at my previous school during lunch time was opening their packets of ketchup or dressing they got everyday to cover their meat or quarter cup serving of salad. I opened them because they weren’t made for 5-year old hands to open. In fact, little of those lunches were made with children in mind, I thought. Everyday, children threw away their tray, carton, napkin, fork, and their unwanted food into trashcans as tall as them. Everyday a lost opportunity to nourish, educate, and show our love to children.
So when I started working in Japan, I immediately noticed the difference in how children and the food they are given is valued, in and out of the lunchroom. At the nursery schools, I have picked sweet potatoes and strawberries with children. I’ve seen several cooking lessons, including soups, curries, traditional foods, hot cakes and cookies. A few days after hinamatsuri, parents were invited to the school to make sushi rice with their children, just like what they ate for lunch. 

Throughout the year, teachers turn recipes into big books that are read as part of their literacy instruction. Cause and effects of mixing batter and milk are discussed like science experiments. Every year, the 5-year olds of one school plant rice in a nearby field, cut it in the fall, then that rice is cooked in the winter and used to make mochi during an annual festival. All the while they are writing and reading about the experience as part of the curriculum. These nursery schools are not representative of all Japanese schools, but for me, it is reassuring just to know that this way of taking care and educating children does exist. I hope it is for you too.  

Daniel Ferguson


Thank you so much for your magical post, Mr. Ferguson! I just want to float over to Japan. My first thought is that it’s no wonder Japanese students beat our students at most subjects. I have a couple follow-up questions. Do you have overweight students? How much time do the kids get for lunch? Do they get recess?

Mrs. Q

NOTE: I set up guest blog posts to auto-post during the day the night before
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88 thoughts on “Guest blogger: An American teacher in Japan

  1. I read through a few of the recent posts and the comments and I just wanted to add a general comment. I am Korean and I have lived in the US for a combined 15 years and one of the things I notice about Americans is that they don't have a food culture. Most other countries have foods that they have been eating for a long time, and no matter what the fad diet is, or the nutrition recommendation is at the time, what people eat doesn't change all that much. For Koreans, it's like the above: rice that provide carbs, and side dishes that are eaten with the rice that provide protein, veggies etc. We don't try to eliminate all kinds of fat from our diet, we don't try to eliminate all kinds of carbs from our diet. We just eat what worked okay for us in the past. It's not perfect, but it doesn't go to extremes either. We don't eat tons of processes foods (although with "westernization" that's changing now) because that's not a normal part of our diet. Having that culture and history of food, comes respect for food, so that people learn how to cook basic things and desire good food. I noticed that even people here who try to eat healthy sometimes want to avoid some food groups entirely (and are often very dogmatic about it too), and I'm not a nutritionist so I won't say whether that's good or bad nutrition-wise, but I think it also reflects people's unhealthy relationship with food.
    I'm sure the issue of obesity in America is more complicated than that, but I just wanted to add to the discussion this theory I had that no one seemed to mention here. What do you think?
    I love your blog, I love what you are doing, and thank you for the good work.

  2. I am here in the US and I ran across your blog yesterday from AOL. I am caught up to date and I just wanted to say that I love your blog.

    Growing up, we were not poor but we were middle class. I took my lunch everyday in elementary school in my metal lunch box and everyday was laughed at because my mom made our bread in the oven instead of buying it at the store. It didn't have the "right" shape. I always ate what she sent me because I loved it. I stopped taking my lunch in high school and I have memories of the foods that I loved to eat…the burritos were oh so good. I wish I could buy them somewhere to this day. I have daughters of my own now and they are 14 and 16 years old. They always took a lunch that I made for them until my youngest hit the 8th grade this year and now she buys everyday…my oldest still takes her lunch everyday and she is a junior in high school. She can't stand the food they offer at the school and it takes too long to go through the lines-she has at the most 5 mins to eat after she gets her food.

    Mr. Ferguson's food makes me hungry 🙂

  3. I was just thinking…if I were served Mr. Ferguson's lunch at a restaurant, I'd be happy with it.

    If I were served one of Mrs. Q's lunches at a restaurant, I think I'd send it straight back to the kitchen. And then probably walk out of the place.

    Why are we consistently serving children food that most of us probably wouldn't eat if we were served it?

  4. Mr. Ferguson's post is both touching and sad. Why is it that we can't in our school systems devote this attention to our kids?

  5. I agree with Zahirah. I keep reading through the posts and conversations here and at several other blogs and news sites, and I marvel more and more at the apparent lack of respect we as a culture seem to have for children, our elders, and well, people in general. I remember being taught, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," as a child while observing those teaching us the golden rule breaking it on a regular basis. Children aren't blind to "little" hypocrisies like these, and it's awfully hard to respect someone you feel is constantly feeding you a line so to speak.

    Integrated teaching methods and amazing curriculum are a big part of the Japanese school systems' success, I'm sure, but a culture centered around respect, for oneself and others, doesn't hurt.

  6. I taught English in South Korea for a year and a half between 2008 and 2009. I taught at a private school in a very affluent area for the first 12 months, and they provided daily snacks and lunches. The lunches at that school were crap. They were healthy-ish, but the quality was lacking.

    Each child would have a metal tray that would have rice, a bit of kimchi, a protein (usually pork or beef), and salad. They'd also get a bowl of soup. It was filling, but even the kids were cognizant of how bad the food was in comparison to home or restaurants.

    We also had a few times where we made food with the kids- namely on the Lunar New Year when we made rice cakes (songpyon) and other foods they traditionally eat during those times. The food wasn't as based on being visually pretty as Japanese cuisine tends to be.

    There were quite a few chubby and overweight children, though not as many proportionately compared to the U.S.. However, in comparison to many of their deathly skinny mothers, it looked healthier for the kids to be a little chubby than too thin. Frankly, I don't think 6 year olds should be raised to be focused on dieting.

  7. What a gorgeous post! I love how this blog is developing into something truly amazing!
    And thankyou for having my blog in the sidebar!

  8. Kyoung-hye, you are right.
    Americans don't have a food culture that has any real depth beyond the latest fad of nutrition information. Somehow we need a PhD in biochemistry to eat healthfully here in the US.

    For many years, I taught a college class for nannies and aupairs entitled: American Food Culture: How Not to Get Fat While Living in America. What I taught those folks, who were here from Europe and parts of Asia, was to eat like their ancestors and not get sucked into the American way of food.

    What I learned from them was amazing.
    Thanks to my students, I learned more about food cultures in foreign countries. Even more surprising was the birds eye view into the toxic and dysfunctional food environments of some of the wealthiest households in America. It was a sad to learn of how messed up these American moms were around food and how they were misfeeding their kids.

    Somehow, we've got to find a way to raise the Food IQ in schools. The USDA food pyramid is not the way. Its faulty and dysfunctional too!
    We need to get back to basics: cooking and growing food.
    These skills are the ones that American children need to cultivate in order to have healthier and more resilient lives.

    The real calorie count that needs to be on our food is a fossil fuel calorie count. As cheap oil becomes less abundant, this will be the game changer that will force our food system to become smaller, more diverse and more local.

    Japan already knows this. Check out this Japanese video on the future of food

  9. I checked out Mr. Ferguson's blog too & now I plan on following it as well. What was striking to me is how balanced the meals are–green vegetables, starch, meat or tofu protein, fruit, etc.

    The current economic crisis is global so I doubt if Japanese schools have any more resources than our own. If they can do this well in Japan. Can't we do this well here?

    It's critical for schools to understand that a child's ability to learn is predicated on the "fuel" that is put into the body/brain that day. It's no wonder that US schools are seeing a decline in performance and behavioral issues–we are corn oil in the engine & expecting Porsche-like performance.

  10. Remember folks this was a "special" meal at a nursery school which the writer states "are not representative of all Japanese schools" – lets see what a typical meal at a regular school is before we jump to conclusions.

  11. I would love a Japanese school lunch. I teach High School in the US. I have seen the lunch food over 30 years and yes it has become a little more appetizing and just a drop more nutritious but I still would not eat it. I bring my own lunch every day and my students comments have run the whole 9 yards from.."Eeww, all that green stuff"…to… 'Will you make me a lunch?'

  12. I also teach in Japan, so I thought I'd comment on your follow-up questions. I'm at a middle school and I frequently visit elementary schools. Our lunches aren't as good as Mr. Fergusen's (a lot of meat, usually fried) but they're still far better than what I ate at a relatively wealthy school growing up in the US.

    Overweight kids: at my middle school with 450 kids, I'd say maybe 6 or 7 are what I'dconsider overweight. I usually see one or two at the elementary schools.

    Time for lunch: the muddle schoolers get 35 minutes for lunch, which includes prep time of about 15 minutes. The elementary school kids have 45 minutes, including 15-20 of prep time.

    Recess: the elementary schoolers run around for about 20 minutes after lunch (then they clean the school!). The middle schoolers have 30 minutes, though most of them aren't physically active during it (but they have PE 3 times a week, nearly all walk or bike to school, and most play sports for 1-2 hours after school).

  13. Thanks to everyone for all the wonderful comments. To answer some questions:
    Mrs. Q- I know of no obese students (I do only teach up to 6-yr olds). Rarely do I see overweight people on the train either. Personally, I've taken to buying lots of clothes over here because they fit me so much better than American clothes.
    The children get about 30 minutes to eat, not including prep or cleanup. Since we eat in our classrooms, I've taken to playing games or reading books with kids while other kids finish eating. There's no rush.
    I asked my teachers about recess this morning, and whenever it's not raining, the children spend about 2 hours everyday outside: in the morning, before lunch, after lunch, and half an hour for group games. When I told them your school doesn't have recess, they just said "muri" which means impossible.
    An insight that many of you are raising is how our school lunch policy speaks to a more general lack of respect and care we are showing our children. It seems that the particular issue of lunch is not about health so much as it is love and respect for children. So many people are rallying behind Mrs. Q's efforts because we can't stand to see children being treated so poorly.

    To Kyoung-hye, your point about culture is so on point, but I would say that America had a food culture years ago, but we gave it up for supermarkets and fast food (a great book about this is The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food, Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food). There is a lot of wisdom in food culture, and schools could be an opportune place to nurture it.

    Thanks again to everyone.

  14. In Denmark patients in the Hvidovre Hospital are served an a la carte menu. Trained chefs cook the food in a kitchen within the premises.

    Given how much was wasted previously, when food was cooked in huge industrial kitchens, and how malnourished the patients got after spending some time in the hospital, it turns out cooking a la carte is saving the hospital money.

  15. Your kids can have a lunchtime experience just like Mr. Ferguson's right here in America! At least here in Chicago they can….if you can afford $20,000 a year to send them to the Montessori School in my neighborhood.

    Thanks to the budget cuts Ms. Q mentioned, homeschooling is looking better and better.

  16. I absolutely adore the term "cook teachers." There is an important meaning there. Food is a critical part of life that all human beings need to deal with in one way or another every single day. What other topic has that kind of pervasive presence in our lives? Yet we are not teaching anything positive about food in the majority of our lunchrooms. In fact we are sending harmful messages. The lunchroom is a classroom. And the food service staff are teachers. Clearly the Japanese culture understands that fact. Hopefully, our American culture is now waking up to it.

    I also really appreciated your statement about there being so much love in room. Food is a very emotional thing. "Breaking bread" together can be a powerful bonding experience for people. Thank you for pointing that out.

    Great post, Mr. Ferguson. Thanks!

  17. Great post, and I love Kyoung Hye's comment as well. It reminds me of Michael Pollan's 'In Defense of Food' where he talks about how Americans become more and more obsessed with the idea of nutrition and we attempt to "self-medicate" with food, rather than just eat what we've been eating for hundreds of years. A lack of a real food culture is a big reason we don't feel strongly about what we serve our people. A good short read if you have time!

  18. Mr. Ferguson's words painted such a wonderful scene in my mind! There are so many things we can learn from other cultures in regard to food and nutrition, and his experience is a prime example. Thanks so much for sharing!

  19. I also love the term "cook teachers" – it shows that they are respected as a part of the professional staff. From reading Mr. Ferguson's blog it seems that they put in a lot of time and effort to make lunch what it is. Yes, ths is a special meal but not too far off from their everyday lunch. The other thing to keep in mind is that this is pre-school, not grade school, and so the instructional demands on time during the day are likely to be different. I also wonder what their salaries are compared to classroom teachers, and how that compares to "lunchladies" salaries in the U.S.

  20. Sorry, but these food pix look good to me. I'm sure it is quite edible for human consumption. I ate public school meals every day throughout my school years. I always looked forward to it, because it was the only decent meal I got each day. My mother, when she cooked at all, was a really bad cook. I also look forward to hospital and airplane food. It's all relative.

  21. You should get a guest blogger from France. An article I just read on time explains French school lunches and wow! It is different to American school lunches. Heres the link,8599,1967060,00.html

    I am a vegetarian in High School. I am discusted with the options my school offers. I know kids who eat 3 slices of pizza, a large 400 calorie strawberry milk, and a choc chip cookie. Thats healthy! Even in elementary schools, they offer the school lunch but enough a la carte items that the kids throw away their real lunch and just eat a poptart, ice cream or cookie for lunch. Quite frankly I don't blame them. The food is nasty and a poptart looks good but it is so unhealthy.
    Our american food culture needs to be completly reformed. Having vending machines that sell chips and cookies in school do not start good habits for kids.

  22. @Anon – As a student, I can tell you flat out that assumption is dead wrong. Quite honestly, I do wish I lived in Japan – the food in our public schools are atrocious. Everyone throws them out as soon as we get them here. So everyone has to buy snacks before school to keep from starving.

  23. The Japanese seem to know what they are doing, in terms of nutrition and how to teach kids to eat in a healthy way. The cook teachers do teach the kids healthy habits about food that is missing in American culture. Americans have thrown away healthy, rich food in the name of convenience and speed.

    According to what Michael Pollan mentioned in his book 'In Defense of Food', it is not considered food if you receive it through your car window. There goes fast food. Unfortunately, we are too comfortable with our bad habits to change.

  24. It seems that schools here in the states just don't get the importance of providing healthy alternatives for young children. Everything is based on whatever is the cheapest. Add that to the ever growing list of reasons why our country's educational system continues to slip. My two girls, 7 and 4, attend a French school here in Chicago. It is based on French curriculum, standards, practices, etc. Everything is taught in French. We love it. We are fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of this opportunity and are grateful. The school lunch program which we don't participate in simply because of cost, is great. It is all organic. The food is healthy for the kids and great thought goes into the meal planning. We provide our own lunches for our girls which can be a hassle at times but at least we know what they are getting. I provided a link to an article in a recent issue of Time magazine on school lunches in France. They take it very seriously. Great blog by the way!!,8599,1967060,00.html

  25. It IS sad how much attention we don't give our children when it comes to food in public schools.
    At my high school, the "snack shack" is now called the "health hut" (though no one calls it that but teachers) so that they can feel like they give us something healthy.
    Lunch is all ways hamburgers with mystery meat or pizza. That's it. If you buy from the snack shack, you can get chips, ice cream, or gogurt. The healthiest thing there are the animal crackers. What's super messed up is that all the money from the snack shack goes toward the secretary who does nothing but complain.
    Oh, and you have a different option on Tuesdays, as it's then Nacho Macho Tuesday when you can buy nachos for $2. Wow.
    It takes a lot to rile me up, but this situation is ridiculous in America.

  26. Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason we don't have a food culture is that we don't have a true cultural identity in the US as a whole. That is an unfortunate side effect of being the World's Melting Pot. Don't get me wrong, I think that being a melting pot is part of what makes the US great, but I also think it means we all give up some of our culture in order to make it work.

    I have European colleagues who have spent time here in the US, and they all have said the same thing: No wonder Americans are overweight, processed food is so easy and convenient to get that it is almost impossible not to eat poorly. One colleague said she was glad to go home, not because she disliked our food, but because she gained almost 10 pounds in 3 months due to eating Ben & Jerry's all of the time.

  27. Wow! Yahoo advertising your blog works. Out of curiosity, I just had to check it out. Kudos to you for doing this. It makes ME feel more powerful just by knowing someone else out there gives a squat about what American kid's are eating for lunch. I home schooled our two oldest children until the fourth grade, and then put them in school last year…just so they could have that "experience" in life, too. I allowed them to eat lunch at school if they wanted to. They didn't. They come home and tell me how gross it is everyday. Why…why…why is pizza available every day? Why isn't there anything green? The Japanese menu looks wonderful! Why can't we do that? America throws so much money at education and it never seems to actually trickle down to benefit the children. We will be homeschooling again next year because they laid off 300 teachers in the district and the student to teacher ratio will be 45:1. Can you believe such a thing?! Well…good luck to you. I'll keep reading….

  28. The standard American diet is killing us–school lunches are just a symptom of an even bigger problem.

    I think cultural diversity in school lunches would help to bring more healthful food to the table.

    I also remember working in the school cafeteria as a kid and how everything was prepared there. Now, for my kids the lunches are prepared in a food service factory and trucked to the schools.

    My children are vegetarians so I pack their lunches most days. They do like to get the cheese pizza once in awhile but whenever they do, they don't get the healthy stuff that is supposed to go with it (fruit, salad, veggies) and no one forces them to take it. All they have to say is that they aren't that hungry!

  29. I have been disgusted with school lunches since I was a child myself. My mother lovingly packed my lunch everyday until middle school at which point I started prchasing a la carte because it wasn't "cool" to bring your own. My children are now in High school themselves and fortunately are in such a small schoo that there is no peer pressure for bringing your own lunch in which they do.
    If we want to address the obesity problem in conjunction with the nutritional value of the meals in our school I think we should address the need for more water breaks as this is the number one reason kids feel hungry when they are not! It is stressed everywhere in the weight loss guides and in healthy living but it's never addressed when childhood obesity is mentioned. My child was just recently given detentin because she left the classroom to use the bathroom because I stress drinking plenty of fluids. How do we make everyone stand up and take notice that we are contributing to the problem because our kids don't drink enough water and are punished if they are..

  30. I am a freshman at a 1A school (very small) and we have about a teacher student ratio of about 1:28.
    Most of our students are obese and, sadly, I am one of the most fit students at my school. Granted, I am 5 ft 8 and 135 lbs. We get 30 mins to eat total from bell to bell. If we are first in line (still after seniors) we get 20 mins. If we are last it is 5 mins.
    The only exercise we get is walking from class to class and the freshman have to take a 1 semester P.E. class.We do need reform in America's school system. THE RIGHT WAY! Not by lengthening classes, but by adding exercise. There is a proven link between exercise and mood/school work.


  31. I am delighted to read this post as a Japanese expat living in the US.

    My public elementary school had school lunches(Jr high was bento).
    We had "kyuushoku no obasan" (lunch ladies who do all the cooking) and a nutritionist (lunch teacher, who has a degree). Serving lunch and putting dishes away taught me appreciation. And since it was a while ago, we weren't allowed to be picky eaters (may be different now).

    I also think cleaning the classrooms (and the worst rotation; restrooms) taught me a lot. I get the impression that American kids tend to think "Someone's going to clean up after me, and that's their job".

  32. Wow! SUCH a great post, so many interesting points and comments. The recent comment about children being able to drink water really hit home with me. I had not thought about it before, but it's so true. I have a terrible time remembering to drink water and feel a little dehydrated all the time; I think we are raised to ignore these messages from our bodies.

    I student taught in Los Angeles and many of my kids didn't want to eat the lunch either because it was gross, or because it was so different from what they had at home (it was a mostly hispanic population at the school). If we talk about the US being a melting pot, I think we could discuss the relevance of the types of food served to students. It is so easy for teachers to roll food into lessons…what better way than to talk about it during social studies, or reading time? Food can help us understand each other and ourselves, if we eat each others' cuisines and talk about them.

  33. I currently live in the south in an affluent area. My kids attend public school and I pack their lunch. On occasion they will eat school lunch(on pizza day). I have seen most of the stuff that is served here and I will admit it is better than most other public schools I have had the opportunity to see the menu! Still I wouldn't want my kids to eat it on a regular basis.I am grateful that I have the means to provide my kids with healthier foods.
    I also lived in Hiroshima for 4 yrs(from 2004-2008). My oldest attended an International school and I packed her lunch as they didn't offer a school lunch. It was nice because the kids had access to microwaves so I could send all sorts of food with her to school. My 2nd child attended yochien(preschool) and I sent a bento(Japanese lunchbox) with him everyday. The school was very specific about what types of foods could be brought for lunch and snack. No junk was allowed, and for a drink they could only have tea or water. I liked how healthy they ate. We aren't big junk food eaters anyway.
    Now that we are back in the States, my two oldest kids are always saying how much they miss the food in Japan. I am saddened by the food that is served to the children here in the US. Don't get me started on the portion sizes when you go to a resturant!

  34. First, a question. Are we comparing apples to…well…tater tots? Mr. Ferguson doesn't really say whether his school is the equivalent of a standard American public school or if it's more the equivalent of @thistles Montessori experience.

    Secondly, I'd like to second the idea that there DOES exist a food culture in America, but that
    A) as has already been pointed out, it's been homogenized by fast and processed food and

    B) there is not ONE food culture, but MANY (both regional and multicultural).

    One of the things I find funny is how the Yahoo article that seems to have lead many here spoke of the tireless efforts of one mom to provide soy butter and organic apple sauce to her children. While anyone can provide any meal to her child, and while (in most American public schools, at least) a home made meal is better than a school lunch, it need not solely be overpriced organic (but still processed) fruit product and soy substitutes.

    My wife and I work hard. We don't have money to throw around, but we'd rather throw an actual apple in a lunch rather than "organic apple sauce". And, while I know all of the arguments for organic vs. … what? inorganic?…food, I still have to say that a standard apple is better than applesauce.

    We didn't feed our son baby food. We cooked fruit, threw it in a blender and froze it. It was easy and cheap. When he was old enough, we fed him real food and not hot dogs (or "not dogs"). What's a better snack, Annies organic cheddar bunnies or a cut up carrot? What's a better meal, organic powdered cheese and macaroni or macaroni with ACTUAL cheese baked in an oven?

    As has already been said in these comments, Americans all too often jump on some kind of food bandwagon: searching for buzz words on packaging. One minute it's "low carb", the next it's "gluten free" or "organic". How tough is it to go back to basics?

    My wife's family comes from Mississippi. She makes a point to make her greens the same way her grandmother did. My family is Italian, and I refuse to eat most prepackaged sauces. Why do we always have to re-invent food?

  35. I used to work in a school cafeteria and it the kind of food they served was not my favorite. There was little choice about what you could serve, because you had to serve whatever was cheapest. The women would get there by 4:30 in the morning to make breakfast and then start on lunch. The only fresh items that were served were in the salad bar. There was also a religious rule that during lent they only served tuna fish on Friday to all the children, and this was a public school, not a catholic school. The most garbage and wasted food was on those days. The lunch ladies were paid hourly and could not work one minute longer than their regular schedule. Even though their were ovens at the high school they weren't allowed to use them. They had to make everything at the elementary school kitchen and then drive it over to the high school. The teachers never stayed in the cafeteria and so, the lunch ladies had to serve the food and watch the students at the same time. The ladies were also not allowed to eat the lunches they made during lunch times. We were also told that we couldn't tell the kids what they had to eat. If the kid only ate the cookie or ice cream and left, we couldn't do or say anything about it. No one wants to put in the time or money to school districts. Everyone complains about the underfunded education program in the US but no one wants to pay for it. I guess I don't understand why we are wasting so much tax money on frivolous projects and cutting the funding to education.

  36. another disastrous comparison and sad truth showing what has become of our grand America … the land where people have long forgotten their freedom, values and respect for others, as well as, the basic necessities that nourish our lives and our future.

  37. This is sad indeed. I used to live in Japan and the food was indeed better than here. Now I am in highschool and our foods are fried and fake. The chicken sandwiches are grey matter with holes in them!! Anyway your blog Is amazing. It is excellent but sad that you have to prove your point in this way. I will root for you!! ^_^ best of luck <3

  38. Mrs. Q,
    I'm an educator too and want to thank you a million times over for your dedication to welfare of our children…in so many ways and for giving this issue a voice! I was a child in a military family and actually spent most of my childhood in Japan and Germany. I moved stateside when I was 15 years old and did experience a 'culture shock' even where food is concerned. Yes, we lived on the military base w/access to all of the American type foods, however, the school meals (lunch and breakfast) were very different than those offered here. The food here grossed my brother and I out so much here that we even made our own lunches to take to school! I do remember that we hardly ever ate in fast food restaurants in Japan and Germany because the food was so expensive relative to "good for you food" in classy restaurants. As a teacher in the US, I'm so disappointed by what we pass off as "nutritious meals" for our youth. Since when did funnel cake w/powdered sugar and fruit compote become a healthy breakfast? Better yet; tacos that have more grease than meat, 2 TBS of lettuce, and 1 tsp of cheese counts as a balanced lunch. I too, have taken up issue with the school board regarding the food served in FL.

    To everyone: Please keep this issue in the forefront of your minds and make your voices heard to the politicians & community leaders that make these critical decisions regarding our children. We are their voices and deserve to be heard. Together, we can make this change!

  39. I am also a teacher in Japan, but my situation is a little different. Things are different everywhere in Japan, and although the food culture here does have a much healthier focus for the most part, it does have shortcomings.

    I have taught at junior high and now teach at elementary schools; in our city, all the students get school lunch (Kyuushoku), consisting of a set menu each day. There's always milk, a bowlful of a soup or stew or other dish, a side dish consisting of some sort of salad, and then a portion of rice or bread.

    It sounds good, right? But wait… the milk is full-fat milk, the soups and stews are often salty and may contain vegetables, but they're few and overcooked. The side dish may consist of fried chicken, mayonnaise-drowned vegetable and meat salads, or–as there was this week–a fruit and "yogurt" mix that was so sweet that even an American kid couldn't stand it. The bread or rice portion is always white bread (rice flour, but still, not much fiber) or white rice with something mixed in.

    The calorie count is about 600+ kilocalories for an elementary school student and 800+ for junior high. But some kids will take extra portions of certain things and end up with a lot more empty calories. The meals are cheaper, of course, but look what you're paying for! Naturally, better-quality foods are going to cost more, but the investment is worth it.

    Honestly, these kids seem to be able to work it off for the most part; they have recess several times a day, play outside, have gym class and walk as far as an hour one way to get to school. But also, my kids are ALWAYS HUNGRY. Even after they've had lunch. It makes me wonder how well their lunch would sustain them if they had more fiber in their diet, in the form of more vegetables, more fruits, and whole-grain carbs.

    For my part, I ate the school lunch for two years, and it was frightening how many calories I had to take in to feel full. Finally, this year, I decided to change to bringing my own bento lunch (the Japanese way of "brown-bagging" it, but often much more balanced and with much more thought put into ingredients and presentation). When I was in high school and interested in Japanese culture, I first began to make my own bento as a substitute for the offerings at my American cafeteria.

    It makes it a bit of a sore point for me to eat something other than what everyone else is eating (and yes, I do eat with the kids), but the facts are these: Since I changed to bento lunches, I have lost at least 20 lbs, and I find myself getting sick less often.

    I'm sad that our school district doesn't choose to have the kids bring bento. Sure, it saves time for busy moms, but how else will the kids be able to learn how to regularly prepare decent and varied meals for themselves? Not much thought goes into dishing out something from a large pot, but if presented with a healthy, balanced meal in a bento, just about any kid will happily eat the whole thing, simply because it LOOKS appealing, fresh, and is something special made just for them. I can't tell you how many times the kids have picked at the hot dog/pasta mix in their dishes and longed to eat my spinach greens and sliced fish cake. They absolutely LIVE for the one day every couple of months when there is no school lunch, and they have to bring a bento from home instead. I see amazing variety in their boxes, beautifully-prepared meals that are actually balanced and made colorful with larger proportions of veggies and fruit. It's sad that the kids study nutrition and bento-making as part of their education, but rarely do they get to implement it!

    If kids were more involved with their own meals, in Japan or America or anywhere, I believe the raised awareness of what's going into their bodies, and the increased CONTROL over it would definitely benefit them!

  40. I lived in Japan for four years when I was in middle and high school. I've noticed that American kids tend to waste a lot of their food where as the Japanese kids will eat EVERYTHING put in front of them. I used to think that maybe the reason is because American kids were just plain wasteful but considering the crap American students are being fed its no wonder why.

  41. As an American teacher, I'm so glad to see this blog…and on the front page of Yahoo to boot! I've recently become very interested in Japanese bento because of exactly what is described in Mr. Ferguson's post. What could be a more inviting lunch than variety of good, appealing foods that are lovingly prepared? I hope this blog continues to grow and reach the American public about the horrors that we dare to call school lunches in this country. More power to you!

  42. I too am a teacher in Japan. I teach at a high school near Osaka. School lunch in most Japanese high schools is way different from this post. High schools in Japan (based on talking with other ALTs) have a cafeteria where students can buy lunch there or bring their own, but no set lunch is provided by the school everyday.

    Lunch time at my school is from 12:30-1:25. There is no recess, but students can do whatever they want during that time. Many spend the time in their homeroom with their classmates or study or eat quickly to go practice with their club. My school has a cafeteria that serves a lot of things like udon soups, french fries snacks, and mystery food that I have yet to figure out. The most popular items here are katusu kare (curry rice with fried chicken) and hayashi katsu (a rice with a curry-ish sauce and fried chicken). The most popular dishes are fried! Many students bring their own lunch with egg, rice, tempura, fruit…

    When students asked me what American high school students have for lunch, I told them about pizza and hot dogs and ice cream and hamburgers. Most of them were very jealous and wished their cafeteria served the same thing… much to my shock!

  43. Interesting post. I too have taugh in Japan public schools and I agree with everything being said here about how most Americans eat, but I have to disagree with the "My first thought is that it's no wonder Japanese students beat our students at most subjects." comment. I know this is a blog mostly about food and I am aware that the grass is always greener… but the Japanese educational system is not exactly the gold standard. Most Japanese that have been exposed to western culture are amazed at how students in america and elsewhere can discuss topics and challenge teachers. In Japan education is often memorization, memorization, memorization. This explains why despite years of mandatory English study so little of the population can speak the language. It works well for test scores but try to have a debate or complex problem solving activity with Japanese students and you will be amazed. I understand that there are cultural differences at work here and that the Japanese still do alright and that America is deficient in many areas as well. I just wanted to point out that things aren't as great as they often appear.
    Nice blog.

  44. Mrs. Q: I am John Miele, one of the writers at This article inspired me and got me to thinking. I would like to ask your permission to link to this article and post a quoted excerpt for an article on In particular, some of Mr. Ferguson's cultural observations really have a relevance. Here,in the Philippines, kids normally bring their own lunches…but there is a respect for food that is missing in the States. An interesting comparison.

    In any event, I always like to ask first, before posting anything.Thank you!

  45. We are an American family living in Japan. Our preschooler attends an all Japanese preschool and his lunches are excellent. They even have a little clear display box outside the school that they put a lunch on display so the parents can see what lunch was. Most days I'm jealous of his lunch! A lot of the food is grown right there in the school garden with the kids helping.

    Two days a month the kids have to bring a bento which is a packed lunch from home. The Japanese kids all have amazing lunches with their rice shaped like neat characters and their veggies cut out into shapes. It's like art.

    Maybe if our American schools had to put a lunch on display outside the school for everyone to see they may choose to feed our kids differently.

    Great blog!


  46. I have to back up baystars post. I too teach at a high school in Japan. They are completely accurate in the description of Japanese schooling, it's all memorization. I also find that the "brain food" promoted at my school is an absolute joke. My students are *told* by the "lunch teacher" that sugar and bread is brain food–it "gives them engergy" to study. After recovering from the shock of this news, I suggested maybe the students don't stay at school until 9 or 10 at night and get more sleep, of course the response was laughter.

    I also will comment on the school lunches. In Japanese high schools the school lunch is not mandatory like in the elementary schools. Many of my students bring a lunch from home (not always that healthy!). Our school cafeteria offers soba noodle soup, udon noodle soup, curry and rice or fried rice (pretty empty nutrionally). The teacher's bento boxes consist of three or four meat dishes, usually deep fried or processed meats. If there are vegetables, they are hard to find. This is accompanied by a huge helping of white rice. I can't ever finish my lunch, it is way too big. I can't even handle eating the bentos any more, they are just way too oily!

    My high school in the US didn't have terrible lunches, but they also weren't great. A few parents volunteered to make some healthier lunches, and it made a lot of people happy. However, I think we are all missing the point of the issue. Our schools may have crappy menus and lack funding, but the real solution can be fixed easily by the parents. Parents need to stop relying on the school to do everything for them. They need to help their children learn at home, and they need to teach their children healthy eating habits at home. It's easy to blame the schools or the government, but we can all solve this problem ourselves.

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