A 30-year-old female reader in Hiroshima contacted the Chugoku Shimbun one day to convey her frustration that school lunches are thrown away when schools shut down due to heavy rain.
“I heard that whenever elementary and junior high schools are canceled after a heavy rain warning is issued, school lunches prepared for that day are thrown away,” she wrote to the newspaper using the messaging app Line. “It is sad to hear, as food waste has become a problem.”
On June 7, a heavy rain warning was issued in the city of Hiroshima. According to the city’s board of education, 101 elementary schools as well as 40 junior high schools closed.
Milk and vegetables were saved for a later date, but other perishable food items, such as rice and meat for 57,000 students, had to be thrown way. On that day, it stopped raining by around 9 a.m., leaving a sense of wastefulness among those who had prepared lunch.
It also raised the question of whether food producers could have at least delayed cooking the rice, which requires relatively less time than other dishes.
The board of education says the reality is complicated. Under the agreement with contractors, the deadline to cancel an order for rice is 3 p.m. the day before school lunch is served.
Seven contractors divide up rice cooking for 205 public elementary and junior high schools, and it takes time to deliver rice as each contractor has many schools to serve. Because of that, they need to start preparations by daybreak.
Meanwhile, most elementary schools individually decide whether they cancel classes by 7 a.m. For junior high schools, it would be by 10 a.m.
“If you want to prevent food waste, at this point it is necessary to cancel the school lunch the day before when schools have yet to decide whether they would shut down,” said Takaharu Fujikawa, a health and education division chief at the board of education, which is in charge of school lunch logistics.
“However, if the weather improves and schools are not canceled, many parents would be frustrated being told all of a sudden that they need to prepare lunch for their children. Taking that into consideration, we haven’t been able to (cancel school lunches the day before).”
Companies making the lunches are not happy with the situation, either.
“It is sad cooking rice thinking it may be thrown away,” said Masaharu Nishimura, president of Omei Bakery, which cooks lunch for 18 schools in the city’s Asaminami Ward. “I’ve been troubled by it for decades.”
On June 7, the company reluctantly threw away 621 kilograms of rice, or 8,834 servings. The company’s workers usually start washing rice at 3 a.m.
“We could delay washing rice until the last minute if the weather looks bad. If schools contact us by 6 a.m. to notify us whether they would be open or closed, we would be able to accommodate, even though rice would be firmer than usual. I wonder if there is anything we can do about it?” Nishimura asked Fujikawa, who also attended the interview.
In some surrounding towns, there are cases where it is possible to cancel a rice order during the morning of a school closure. The board of education in the town of Saka sets the deadline at 7 a.m.
“We are able to cancel in the morning because we cook rice for four elementary and junior high schools,” said Hideshi Yamamoto, the head of the school lunch center operated by the town. “We have not thrown away rice due to heavy rain in recent years.”
Some big municipalities have dealt with the problem, such as Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, which has a population of 310,000. The city’s board of education collectively decides whether to cancel classes or not.
Yasunori Nagae, who heads the city’s school lunch division, said the deadline to cancel rice is 4 a.m.
“If there is a possibility that a strong wind warning would be issued, we would stay at the city office overnight. We would ask contractors to suspend rice cooking if we decide to cancel classes even before dawn,” Nagae said.
The city has introduced measures to reduce food waste, including selling vegetables that can’t be used for school lunch at a later date to city hall visitors for a cheap price.
Elementary and junior high schools in the city of Kyoto keep freeze-dried vegetables and instant rice, which is easier to cook for schools, in stock. The city cancels school lunches when a typhoon is approaching and uses the food in stock for lunch if schools remain open.
The city started the measure in fiscal 2006 after it wasted ¥10 million worth of food when schools were closed due to a typhoon.
It may be difficult to immediately change the current system when contractors are cooking a large quantity of rice and ingredients are purchased beforehand. But teaching students to be grateful to producers and reduce waste, while at the same time having schools easily throw away food, does not set a good example.