On April 22, 2020, a crowd gathered at the Fujikata Racetrack in Tsu City, Mie Prefecture, Japan. With the anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic swirling about them, citizens ventured from their homes donning facemasks. Once at the racetrack they formed a “socially distant” line and waited for the gates to open. Residents were not waiting to see a race. Rather, they had come to do their grocery shopping. While nearby city markets and green grocers were still open for business, these citizens had come in hopes of snagging a bargain and also supporting their community. This was not your typical farmers’ market—the produce was gathered from unfulfilled school lunch orders. With schoolyards shuttered due to the pandemic, the fresh ingredients ordered months ago had nowhere to go, and rather than let the food go to waste, the community and local government intervened. Even with the schools closed, school lunch helped to unite a community.

Since 2011, I have been conducting research on school lunches (gakkō kyūshoku) and food education (shokuiku) in Japan. Much of my study has explored how school lunch and food education intersect with local economies, public health, and community building. The pandemic, however, has raised a new set of questions, including: What happens not only to school lunches but to Japanese society when schools close? And what does this reveal about the resiliency of civil-society networks? In this research brief, I present findings regarding these networks spanning from February to June 2020 that rely on the mutual support of state and society. I draw upon my background of informal fieldwork of teaching in Japanese public schools, graduate research studies, as well as formal school lunch and food education–related interviews and field research conducted for the documentary Nourishing Japan, which I created and produced. For this piece, I monitored press and online activities from February to early June 2020, specifically focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on school lunch and local communities. What I discovered was that even when lunch was interrupted, many communities were able to work together through preexisting networks in creative ways to support one another. The examples presented in this work may be useful to other school lunch systems around the world to show how locally engaged school lunch networks can be a source of resiliency and a catalyst for altruism.

School lunch is nearly universal in public elementary and middle schools in Japan, and parents rely on the school meals, cooked from scratch, for their children’s nutrition, as well as for convenience and affordability. Local government subsidies, taxes, and revenue cover operations and labor, while monthly household fees averaging $41–47 USD (MEXT) cover ingredients. In many communities school lunch production stopped soon after February 27, 2020, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested that elementary, junior, and high schools close until early April 2020. The bold request by the Prime Minister to shutter schools was unprecedented. Rattled parents across the nation shifted to working from home during one of the busiest times of the year—March is the last month of Japan’s fiscal calendar—while also overseeing childcare. With children suddenly at home, many parents found themselves struggling to both provide meals and adequately homeschool their children during the working day. School closures and the halt of school lunches meant that many parents now shouldered full responsibility for their children’s midday meal through unsubsidized time, labor, and ingredients. For parents and children alike, the loss of school lunch was sudden and significant.

Local governments and municipalities found new ways to support families during this crisis. Setagaya Ward in Tokyo implemented short-term emergency deliveries of lunch boxes to homes of elementary and junior high school students unable to receive lunch due to financial limitations or the health of their caretakers (Huffington Post Japan 2020). Bunkyo Ward in Tokyo provided a 500 yen ($4.71 USD) daily stipend to students who received school financial assistance for as long as the schools were closed. This sum is enough to purchase a relatively healthy bento box at a supermarket or a simple meal (Yamashita 2020). Later in spring, when schools would begin reopening, some municipalities decided to provide free school lunch for elementary and junior high school students for varying time periods—currently a maximum of six months (Koyama 2020). However, not all municipalities could provide this type of support. As these examples demonstrate, some communities fared better than others, evidence of a disjointed response similar to other countries around the world.

While parents readjusted to a new paradigm at home, Abe’s request also left local governments and municipalities scrambling to sort out the logistics of school closures. This was a herculean task. School lunch employs over 45,000 municipal cooking staff throughout the country who provide meals to more than 30,000 schools a day (MEXT 2019). School lunch is typically mandatory, except in cases of student allergies and other special arrangements, and so the volume of food used every day is significant. In Otsu City, a town near Kyoto, one of the district school lunch cooperatives had no recipients for its more than 28,000 meals scheduled to be prepared over the next sixteen days (Kyoto Shimbun 2020). Over the next twenty-four hours the Otsu City School Lunch Division contacted thirty different contracted companies to suspend or redistribute orders with little hope of compensation. Similar stories of school lunch existed throughout the country—orders canceled, fresh harvests with nowhere to go, and limited safety nets in place to compensate for a complete shutdown of schools. Nationwide many factories stood empty; crops rotted in the fields, were thrown away, or converted to fertilizer.

School closures meant unintentional food loss and financial hardship for the agricultural sector. School meals are deeply linked with domestic agriculture, and around the country, communities work to integrate local and regional ingredients into the school meals. Currently, the country is reliant on imports and maintains a relatively low food self-sufficiency rate: around 40 percent based on caloric intake. Protecting domestic farmers has been a priority for decades, but recent years have seen even more efforts to bolster the industry. By 2015 schools in Japan aimed to include at least 30 percent of their daily ingredients from locally or domestically grown products (MAFF 2008). When self-sufficiency dropped to its lowest level in twenty-five years—a mere 37 percent (Japan Times 2019) in 2018—the Abe administration unveiled the Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform, which, among other policies, admitted lower-skilled foreign workers in industries facing acute labor shortages, including agriculture (Aoyama 2018). Another major agricultural development has been to encourage the consolidation of farmland under the management of business-oriented operators instead of the traditional small-scale enterprises (Aoyama 2018). Even before the impact of COVID-19, the agricultural sector in Japan had been struggling for decades.

Amid the unprecedented circumstances, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) sprang into action. On March 10, 2020, they announced special countermeasures, including subsidies for securing alternative channels of food distribution through food banks or recycling (MAFF 2020a). Additionally, from March 16 to May 7, MAFF coordinated with the online food retailer Umami-mon and launched a special section of the website: “Eat & Support School Lunch Campaign.” As of May 4, 2020, this website featured 158,817 products added by producers (Umami-mon 2020), including everything from seafood, produce, sweets, prepared foods, and miscellaneous items such as curry roux, honey, and noodles (ASCJII.JP 2020). Sold in bulk with simple packaging, customers could purchase these items directly from Umami-mon’s website with free shipping. School lunch is generally held in high regard in Japan, and ingredients procured for these daily meals are of reliable quality. Customers could shop with relative confidence in their purchases.

Another critical industry impacted by the shutdown of schools was dairy. Milk is included with daily school lunch for children to obtain their recommended amount of calcium, and school milk sales are a vital source of revenue for many dairies. The timing of school closures could not have been worse, as the spring is when milk production is the most plentiful for dairy cows. In a country where milk is generally not heavily consumed (Agricultural and Livestock Industries Corporation), some local dairies can allot upward of 70 percent of their product to school lunch (Japan Times 2020a). One dairy delivered 120,000 bottles of milk per day for school lunches, and school closures in March meant losses of 65 million yen (approx. 600,000 USD) in expected sales (Japan Times 2020a).

To reduce milk disposal, the government coordinated with the Japan Dairy Council to promote increased dairy consumption (Japan Dairy Council 2020). In mid-April MAFF launched the “Plus One Project” to encourage citizens to consume one additional raw milk or yogurt product each day to support the dairy industry. Grassroots efforts also mushroomed throughout the nation, with communities supporting dairy farmers through local pop-up sales in mini-malls, grocery markets, or direct purchases from the dairies. One farmer in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture, stated that his farm had been able to save 14,000 bottles of milk through direct sales. Although numbers like these are miniscule in comparison to sales in the previous year, they point to a sense of community altruism centered on school lunch and mitigating food loss as the society helps to support farmers even in small ways.

These examples demonstrate how state and society came together through food to support one another despite the turbulence of the pandemic. Japan is no stranger to this kind of connection forged through food. In 2005, the Japanese government passed the Basic Law on Food Education (Shokuiku Kihon Hō). This law encouraged schools, local governments, grassroots organizations, and individuals to deepen understanding of food and food production for improved health and well-being. For decades, communities have built community networks through food education activities, especially those in school. Food education also takes place in community centers, restaurants, and after-school care through grassroots networks. Fostering health and economic vitalization through food has long been a priority in Japan. Even with the status quo disrupted, citizens could ably tap into their local food networks.

The Tsu City racetrack market is one example of altruism at work through food, and countless other examples exist throughout the country. In Hyogo Prefecture the Akashi City School Lunch Provision Association set up a drive-through distribution center to sell unused school lunch ingredients (Kobe Shimbun 2020). These “Drive-Through Vegetable Stores” have sprung up nationwide. This model addresses the necessity of visiting the grocery store frequently. Japanese cooking uses fresh, seasonal vegetables, and in many households a daily visit to the grocery store is typical. With limited storage at home, cramped kitchens, and small refrigerators, a “two-week grocery haul” is logistically not possible. Drive-throughs met both demands of minimal human interaction (Mainichi Shimbun 2020) and regular opportunities for grocery shopping. Additionally, local grocers coordinated with school lunch centers and farmers to sell school lunch–repurposed produce at bargain prices (Kobe Shimbun 2020). Across the country, restaurants participated in neighborhood coupons and provided discounts to children for special prepackaged lunches. The school lunch system is generally well regarded, and many communities recognized the need to try to fill the gap between families and producers to support each other and the local economy.

Food banks also played a special role during this time, as they were promoted by MAFF as a means to reutilize school lunch ingredients (MAFF 2020a) during school closures. Food banks are a relatively new concept in Japan, with the first established as recently as 2002 (Japan for Sustainability 2016). In the early days food banks were underutilized, likely due to a general mistrust of NGOs in Japan as well as the associated social stigma of visiting food banks. However, recent years have seen an uptick in food bank recipients and organizations throughout the country. An often-cited reason for their proliferation was an increase of single-parent families and their financial hardships. At the same time, the past twenty years have also seen a rise in childhood poverty, with one in six children in Japan now living in relative poverty (McCurry 2017). In 2015, Japanese food banks, to meet this increasing need, launched nationwide networks to share information and streamline operations (Japan Times 2015). Since then, national and municipal governments are beginning to more fully embrace the importance of food banks, both to support society and to mitigate food loss. In January 2020 MAFF announced that in the new fiscal year (April) they would launch an online system to link food banks with food donors (Kyodo News 2020). While COVID-19 may have derailed these plans for the immediate future, one of the silver linings may be that the pandemic necessitates producers—especially those impacted by school closures—to tap into food bank networks and distribution hubs more readily.

The pandemic is also forcing a cultural reassessment of food banks, as many are turning to these organizations for the first time. In COVID-times customer demand is high (Shibata 2020). For example, the Asakusabashi branch of Second Harvest Japan, the most prominent food bank in the country, doubled the amount of people needing food packages in April 2020 (Shibata 2020). At this branch around 70 percent of new recipients were families with small children, including single-parent households (Shibata 2020). This spike, coupled with relatively limited procurement options and volunteer staff, has increased the pressure on food banks. In April 2020 Second Harvest Japan temporarily cut their packages to 10 kg per family, down from their prior 30 kg (Shibata 2020). Previously, customers could come as often as they needed to, but were now limited to once every two weeks. Customers no longer could choose items themselves and instead only pick up prepackaged bags. Despite these logistical strains, MAFF continues to promote food banks as an underutilized resource for producers to offload their excess goods. In the meantime, food banks work diligently to provide support to their constituents. This sector remains a promising work-in-progress with hopes that the producers and volunteer base will continue to grow.

Another type of organization that has also helped to foster community altruism through food is kodomo shokudo or children’s cafeterias. During COVID-19 these organizations are being repurposed to mitigate food loss, support local industries, and provide meals to children in lieu of school lunch. Kodomo shokudo are a cross between a canteen, soup kitchen, and community center that serves children and neighborhood residents. The first children’s cafeteria was established in Ota Ward, Tokyo, in 2012 by Hiroko Kondo, the owner of the vegetable shop Kimagure Yaoya Dan Dan. Once a week the store is transformed into an evening pop-up canteen. Staffed by volunteers and members of the community, meals are free or pay-what-you-can. Many organizations also provide activities and tutoring. The idea originated when Kondo heard about a neighborhood child who, outside of school lunch, had only a single banana to eat each day. To help address childhood hunger and serve as a welcoming place for the young, she coined the term kodomo shokudo and transformed her small business. This organizational mission and model have spread throughout the country, growing from 300 canteens in 2016 to over 2,200 in 2018 (NHK 2019). Often found in community centers or local businesses, the mission of kodomo shokudo has also expanded, in some cases welcoming not only children but families with children.

The sheer number of these cafeterias, combined with their community settings and dedicated volunteer staff, make them the perfect vehicle to support vulnerable communities and food producers. However, at the beginning of March, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) announced that kodomo shokudo should limit public operations and follow local government guidelines (MHLW 2020). For many organizations this meant shutting down completely as anxiety over the spread of infection proved intractable (Tokyo Shimbun 2020). Despite these challenges, a nationwide survey of kodomo shokudo found that nearly half of the respondents had switched operations to boxed-lunch pickups or home delivery (Tokyo Shimbun 2020). In this altered environment, many kodomo shokudo saw themselves as de facto school lunch suppliers—helping the same children to whom they previously fed dinner and now also providing lunch. With the intention to get as many cafeterias as possible back up and running to meet demand, the National Children’s Cafeteria Support Network Musubie plans to create a handbook with guidelines for reopening and distribution (Tokyo Shimbun 2020). Even with these guidelines, some organizations are overwhelmed by demand and lack of funding. Logistical issues such as securing refrigerated storage space for wholesale ingredients and donations present major short-term challenges. Nevertheless, the kodomo shokudo community is dedicated in their mission to help the next generation through food and is developing unique methods to safely meet their needs.

In many ways, the school lunch response during COVID-19 has helped to foster altruism in the community, similar to when a natural disaster occurs, and people find common purpose under extraordinary circumstances. Throughout the spring of 2020, Prime Minister Abe made repeated calls for jishuku—collective self-regulation. Similar country-wide requests were made in the weeks and months following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. COVID-19 is not a violent natural disaster but rather a quiet one. Japan’s long history of collective and communal support in times of strife works to its advantage, helping to encourage new systems of engagement for the present and build on them for the future. School lunch carries a particular weight and connecting power that spur communities to action. Perhaps this is because nearly everyone in Japan has experienced school lunch. Perhaps it is because school lunch is valued. This work demonstrates why school lunches should be a trusted and locally invested resource throughout the world. Thus, when threatened by external factors, school lunch can serve as a catalyst for citizens and municipalities to band together.

Further study remains regarding the role of school lunches after such a unique form of natural disaster. Possible future research includes the impact of school lunch loss on children and families, the logistics of school reopening and school lunch, the longer-term impact of food disruption, and how structural changes in society spurred by the pandemic—such as the adoption of telecommuting—will impact food production and consumption in the future. This research would help us to understand the full scope of the pandemic’s impact on school lunch and its associated communities. Nevertheless, these initial observations show how school lunches are one powerful tool to help communities support one another. Indeed, school lunch can become a unique rallying point in times of crisis.

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