Kazumi Sato, a nutritionist at an elementary school in eastern Tokyo, has been receiving notices about price increases in ingredients for months.
Given the economic challenges that many of the children’ families endure, local governments are hesitant to pass on the cost of more expensive school meals to them. Sato has had to regularly change lunch dishes in order for Senju Aoba Junior High School’s kitchen to remain under budget.
“I try to include seasonal fruits once or twice a month, but it’s difficult to do it frequently,” she told Reuters at the school.
Sato says she substitutes jelly or a piece of hand-made cake for fresh fruit, which is pricey in Japan. She’s started using a lot of bean sprouts as a cheap substitute whenever feasible, but she’s worried that if costs keep increasing, she’ll run out of options.
“I don’t want to disappoint the children with what they might feel is a sad meal,” she said to Reuters.
In Japan, a nation used to sharp price increases, inflation is becoming a political issue, and many people are feeling the pinch.
Soaring food costs have an impact on schools, which are a key source of nutrition for low-income Japanese families.
Sato claims that an 18-litre (4.8-gallon) can of cooking oil now costs 1,750 yen ($12.85) more than it did a year ago, while onion prices have more than quadrupled. Because the government sets tight dietary criteria on public schools, nutritionists can only do so much before schools are compelled to hike rates on families.
Authorities seek to prevent this because they know impoverished families would eat less healthful meals at home. According to educators and public authorities, some youngsters return to school after summer vacation significantly slimmer.
Lunch at a public middle school in Tokyo’s Adachi ward costs 334 yen, of which 303 yen is supplied by families.
As part of the relief efforts, the national government said in April that it would grant funding to assist schools in covering some of the growing food expenses. Adachi ward intends to utilize these funds, as well as its own surplus, to prevent passing the burden on to households.
However, Sato is concerned about the possibility of significant increases in energy and food prices, particularly as the school year comes to a close and the allotted funds begin to run out.
“The rainy season ended earlier this year, so there may be a big impact on vegetables,” she told Reuters. “I’m worried about what prices will be like in the fall and beyond.”