TOKYO (Reuters) – Kazumi Sato, a nutrition expert at a middle school in eastern Tokyo, has been receiving months of notices about rising ingredient prices.
Given the economic hardships many student families face, local authorities are loath to burden them with more expensive school lunches. For Sato, this meant constantly adjusting lunch recipes so that the kitchen of Senju Oba Junior High School could stay within budget.
“I try to include seasonal fruit once or twice a month, but it’s hard to do it frequently,” she told Reuters at school.
Sato says she replaces fresh fruit, which is expensive in Japan, for jelly or a piece of handmade cake. She’s used to using a lot of bean sprouts as a cheap alternative whenever possible, but she’s afraid she’ll run out of ideas if prices keep going up.
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“I don’t want to disappoint the kids with what they may feel is a sad meal,” she said.
Inflation is becoming an increasingly political issue in Japan, a country unaccustomed to sharp price increases, and many households are feeling the pinch.
For schools, rising food prices affect an important source of sustenance for low-income Japanese families.
These days, an 18-liter (4.8 gallon) can of cooking oil costs 1,750 yen ($12.85) more than it did a year ago, Sato says, while the price of onions has doubled. The government imposes strict dietary requirements on public schools, so there is only so much that dietitians can do before schools have to raise prices on families.
The authorities want to avoid this, knowing that poor families will skimp on nutritious meals at home. Teachers and government officials say some children are returning to school from summer vacation and appear less skinnier.
In Tokyo’s Adachi ward, public middle school lunches cost 334 yen, of which 303 yen is covered by families.
As part of relief measures, the national government said in April it would provide the money to help schools absorb some of the increased costs of meals. The Adachi suite plans to use it, and its own extra budget, to avoid putting the burden on families.
But Sato is concerned about the potential for energy and food prices to increase, especially towards the end of the school year when the allocated funds start to run out.
“The rainy season ended earlier this year, so there could be a huge impact on vegetables,” she said. “I’m concerned about what prices will be like in the fall and beyond.”
(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko, writing by Chang Ran Kim, Editing by Sam Holmes)
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