Confronted by a multitude of food and nutrition issues, including rising obesity rates, an increase in lifestyle-related diseases, an over-dependency on internationally-sourced food, and a declining traditional food culture, Japan enacted the “Basic Law on Shokuiku” in June 2005. Shokuiku (roughly translating to “food education”), can be broadly defined as the development of nutritional and food-related knowledge, and the ability to utilise that knowledge to create a healthy and balanced diet. As well as promoting a healthy lifestyle, Shokuiku promotes a greater appreciation for the various aspects involved in food production, and a greater emphasis on traditional Japanese food culture. Shokuiku is an attempt at a cultural shift in perceptions about food and, as such, large-scale collaboration between the involved stakeholders has been required. This ranges from its practice in schools and day-care centres, to farmers, fishermen and other food-related businesses increasing community involvement and exposure to their food production processes.
The “Basic Law on Shokuiku” is a unique piece of legislation that aims to tackle problems which are not inherently unique to Japan. Could it then be possible for the Australian Government to enact similar legislation and, if so, is there a need to do so? In 2014-15, 35.5% Australian adults were overweight and 27.9% were found to be obese, while 20.2% of children were overweight, and 7.4% were classified obese. These rates have been steadily rising and are indicative of an obesity crisis occurring in Australia. A report from PwC and Obesity Australia found that, in 2011, the direct costs (costs of GP visits, hospital care, medication, etc.) were estimated to be $3.8 billion, and the indirect costs (loss of work productivity and government subsidies) were estimated at $4.8 billion dollars. More abstract costs, such as the cost to Australia’s wellbeing, have risen to approximately $130 billion a year. The costs are staggering, and provide a good argument for government intervention.
The Australian Government has employed policies which share certain aspects with Shokuiku, such as basic food and nutrition education in the school curriculum, but they differ in scope with Shokuiku, which attempts long-term change via a system of traditional and cultural values. Methods such as encouraging children to make their own lunches and bring them to school one day a month, encouraging the use of local produce in lunches, and having students and teachers make lunchtime presentations on specific dishes or local ingredients fosters an appreciation for aspects of food production and preparation. The aim is not simply to provide nutritional information, but to also foster an ability for children to make informed choices about food.
Japan’s School Lunch Act was revised in 2008 to promote Shokuiku among primary school children. Schools provide healthy meals, many employing nutritionists to provide recipes. The children serve the meals to each other and eat together in their classrooms. Vending machines are not present in the schools and children cannot bring food from home until high school (excepting dietary restrictions). As a result, childhood obesity in Japan has declined.
There have been downsides to some policies promoting Shokuiku. After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster in 2011, there were concerns of radiation-contaminated food. The School Lunch Act requirement that schools only provide food from local sources led to anxiety for many parents who had little confidence in government screening procedures. This caution was criticised as hysteria and that it could lead to economic damage, hurting local farmers. While this is a very specific example, broad concerns of similar policies in Australia may include the quality of food provided, the cost of such a programme to taxpayers, and whether cultural differences between Australia and Japan may reduce its effectiveness.
Compared to Japan, the percentage of Australians over the age of 15 found to be overweight or obese is 2.6 times higher. It seems obvious that the Australian Government can learn some lessons from the policies that Japan has put in place. A focus on long-term outcomes based on cultural shifts is a good starting point. Approximately 80 per cent of obese children will stay obese as adults, so attempting to give children the tools to make sustainable and healthy dietary choices should be a goal of any such policy. The formulation and introduction of an “Australian Shokuiku” would not necessarily be cheap but, with the financial and social costs of obesity continually rising, prevention is a less expensive option compared to treatment.