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Nutrition education falls short / Number of specialized teachers varies widely among prefectures

The number of nutrition teachers, who are seen as the core of the nation's dietary education, vary drastically between prefectures.

Although five years have passed since the introduction of the nutrition teacher program, as of April, there were large differences in the number of teachers working in different prefectures. For example, while there were 385 nutrition teachers in Osaka Prefecture, 362 in Hokkaido and 322 in Hyogo Prefecture, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures--which have more students--had only 38 and 40 nutrition teachers, respectively. Tokyo, with 1,940 public primary and middle schools, had only 27.

School officials in charge of the issue said the numbers should be increased, saying improper dietary habits will impair students' academic ability, physical strength and motivation.

The Osaka prefectural government has increased its number of nutrition teachers by 100 or more each year since fiscal 2008. Today, the prefecture has the highest number in the nation.

A fiscal 2008 survey of middle school students showed that 13.3 percent of respondents in Osaka Prefecture did not eat breakfast at all, or did so rarely, much higher than the national average of 8.1 percent. The prefectural board of education believes improper dietary habits negatively affect academic ability, physical strength and growth, and set a goal of lowering the percentage of students that skip breakfast to below the national average.

In Hokkaido, a similar survey found that a high percentage of school-age youth eat alone at home. Spurred by the findings, the Hokkaido government worked to increase the number of nutrition teachers.

However, in Tokyo and the surrounding area, the number of nutrition teachers has not increased sufficiently. An official of the Tokyo metropolitan board of education said, "Assignments of nutrition teachers have been delayed partly because Tokyo has its own system in which regular teachers conducted dietary education.

"But since schools with nutrition teachers see good results, such as reducing the amount of school lunch that's left over, we're considering increasing [the number of nutrition teachers]," the official said.

The Kanagawa prefectural board of education also is worried about the situation.

"Even if we wanted to hire more nutrition teachers, it's difficult because of budgets cuts," a board official said

Prof. Masayo Kaneda at the Junior College of Kagawa Education Institute of Nutrition, formerly a school lunch examiner at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, said: "Improper dietary habits in young people can result in diseases caused by unhealthy lifestyles, and increase the risk of obesity. Therefore, experts that bridge the gap between schools and parents are important. Local governments that have been slow about assigning [nutrition teachers] seem to lack a sense of urgency."

Dietary education shows results

The presence of nutrition teachers in schools has been gradually changing dietary habits.

Students of Yasaka Middle School in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, visited a dairy farm in May on a trip guided by their school's nutrition teacher, Keiko Iijima, to teach the students about the value of milk. At the farm, the students had direct contact with dairy cows.

"The mother cows make food inside their bodies and give it to their calves in the form of milk," Iijima explained to the students as they took turns petting the calves. One of them said with a sparkle in their eyes, "It's so furry!"

Iijima has worked for 30 years as a nutrition expert in primary and middle schools. After being assigned to the middle school as a nutrition care worker, she obtained her license as a nutrition teacher. In 2008, she was officially hired as a nutrition teacher by the Tokyo metropolitan government.

At her school, students grow vegetables such as spinach and radishes during comprehensive learning classes. The vegetables are harvested and used in salads and other dishes in school lunches. The school also holds events on weekends in which students and their parents learn cooking. So far, more than 500 have participated in the events that use locally grown vegetables to make breakfast and bento boxed lunch.

These efforts have decreased the percentage of students who do not eat breakfast from about 20 percent to about 10 percent. Before the start of the dietary education, more than 20 percent of food from school lunches, mainly green and yellow vegetables, was left over. Today, the percentage has fallen to less than 1 percent.

Iijima said that having the title of teacher has increased her ability to persuade parents.

Nutrition teachers also teach good dietary habits to students during homemaking, health and physical education classes.

The ministry introduced the system in 2005 to help students acquire the ability to manage their diets in the face of social problems such as children eating alone at home. Prefectural governments are given the authority to decide whether or how many nutrition teachers to assign to schools.

(Jun. 20, 2010)
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