Who Decides What You Eat?

This Mint article on school lunches in Japan is rather alarming in its enthusiasm for the nanny state. It also gushes about the Japanese self-sufficiency movement, which actually dooms Japanese farmers to small farms and eats up money in food subsidies:

Chisan, chishou, the local term for ‘produce local, consume local’, is a major campaign in Japan and it is reflected in the school menu as well. The cabinet office directive says that ingredients for the meals have to be sourced from places no more than 30km away.

And also about government campaigns which set out what people should eat:

So, on 15 July 2005, a new law on syokuiku came into force. It lays down the basic philosophy for “dietary education” to eradicate all these problems at the root. Says Miho Kawano, assistant counsellor at the cabinet office on dietary education promotion department: “Syokuiku is based on the theory that every individual needs to acquire knowledge about how to choose food, be aware of healthy diet and food safety.” What is impressive is the scale and precision with which the movement has been launched all over the country and how every school, prefecture, municipal office, corporate, NGO and literally every citizen on the street has been drawn into the programme.

Which are expensive and intrusive:

According to Kawano, the programme has an annual budget of $98.31 million (Rs391.27 crore) and there are 190,000 volunteers involved. The goal is to get at least 20% more volunteers by 2010 who will spread awareness about nutrition and the link between diet and health all over Japan. And, in a brilliant masterstroke, health insurance societies, too, have been drawn into the programme. Hutami says that from April 2008, the government is planning to route special health checking and guidance facilities to every Japanese citizen through insurance societies. Successful societies will be given a reward, while unsuccessful ones will be penalized.

On a slightly less rational note, the praise given to The Shri Ram School annoys me:

Although it is not organized on military lines like the Japanese school lunches, The Shri Ram School lunch programme is constantly evolving. For instance, the menu, devised by the teachers, is circulated to parents and also vetted by dieticians.

Bah. Death to TSRS.

But the article is still very nicely written and has lots of interesting details. Do read it.

0 Responses to Who Decides What You Eat?

  1. Ritwik says:


    I don’t get your criticisms. You paint the government progam as “set out what people should eat”. That’s quite unfair. Is the government banning fast food outlets? Is it coercing the students to eat only what it suggests? What exactly is the law? If the government is only trying to remove information asymmetry by actively promoting healthy food, what is the trouble?

    As for the government expense, the economy will suffer deadweight losses due to health problems resulting from lifestyle diseases, irrespective of whether the affected avail public or private healthcare. If the analysis that has gone behind the policy suggests that the benefits to the economy outweigh the expenditure, what is your problem with the program?

    It has often occured to me that counting the entire business generated by healthcare services as part of the production of the economy must count as the biggest example of the broken window fallacy. Investment into preventive healthcare (preventive being the operative word) strikes me as a step in the right direction. It can even reduce the burden on the public health infrastructure.

  2. Anamika says:

    Ditto Ritwik comment.

  3. Aadisht says:


    No, the government is not banning fast food outlets. The students are coerced to some extent, but since the schools are acting in loco parentis to them, this is not such a great concern. My worry is more about the competence and the capability of the government to remove information assymetry (because I agree wholeheartedly about prevention being better than cure and deadweight losses).

    Point one is that there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism on which the success of the program is going to be measured. What are the metrics which decide how people are eating healthier? The healthy-eating-campaign just looks like an exercise in throwing away money. (This could be said of all advertising campaigns, but at least corporate advertising budgets are limited by what shareholders will tolerate).

    Point two is that when you have only the government setting out what is healthy and what isn’t, health standards incorporating new research slows down compared to when you have competing standards.

    Point three which is especially applicable to India is that government is horribly susceptible to capture by vested interests. When you have one government authority with a monopoly on school lunches, one person or lobbyist can set what millions of schoolchildren eat – for example, eggs were struck of the school mid-day meals in Karnataka this year after Jain and Hindu organisations protested. A more sinister application of this would be companies bribing the department in charge to get its own food products on to the menu.

    How to overcome these problems and still break down information asymmetry is a topic that is best addressed in the series of posts on Fundamentallly Interconnected Things like the Flickr API, DRL getting funding from ICICI Ventures, DBabble, Bangalore Central, Singaporean bars, et cetera.

  4. Ritwik says:


    Largely agree with point one, but you may have jumped the gun a little. Popular media articles never carry the intricate details of ‘on what grounds will it be measured’ – it is quite likely that the government has some targets in place. But yes, your skepticism is justified on the same grounds that most skepticism of govt activities is.

    Don’t realy agree with your point two. The government sets out the ‘healthy food’ criteria not out of vacuum but based on certain reseach and publications. Competing health standards can always compete for this space. Modern day govenments do not tend to be very insular, esoecially when it comes to specialized knowledge. Else, we would have never had consultancies taking up govt projects, scientific missions and committees headed by eminent reserachers who have no prior government institutional experience, public private infrastructure partnerships and suchlike. And I’m talking about India, Japan is likely to be a whole lot better.

    Point three is essentially an extension of the fact that the govt runs these schools in the first place. Even if the food was being provided by private players, contracts may be handed to people known to the school authorities based on non-health concerns. Again, your skepticim of the governent is justified. But consider the two cases

    1) The government provides what is actually healthy food (through contracts to private players), but makes a large cut in doing so. There is widespread corruption but the health concerns are taken care of.


    2) The contract happens between two private players directly. It is a normal business contract, and so there are no ‘cuts’ as such. But the food less than that of desirable health characteristics, maybe due to cost considerations or due to the personal relationships between the school authorities and the food providers.

    Which one would you prefer? This is not rhetoric – I’m genuinely asking. I know that it may so happen that the best food is provided solely through private negotiations. But let’s restrict ourselves to the above two cases. Which is more desirable?

    Essentially, I think that the government may have decided that the market response to the need for healthy food in schools may be a little too delayed for it to not intervene.

    And fundamentally interconnected things, at least the ones which you mention, are not very accessible to the students of those schools that have mid-day meals scheme.

    I agree that one should be largely skeptical of massive government initiatives – but it also makes sense to wait a little before we pronounce judgement. The 200 year education program of 1868 and 100% literacy in Japan by 1900 was, of course, a wholly government led initiative, and one that reaped massive benefits post WW-II.

  5. Aadisht says:


    1. This is true, I have jumped the gun a little. But just as we are agreed that it is good to be skeptical/ wary of government expenditure, we can probably also agree that government programs are more likely to be measured on input than output. In fact, the line about insurance societies being penalised or rewarded suggests that the government has decided to spend the money but abdicate responsibility entirely.

    2. I still worry about the tendency to fossilise. Individuals respond to incentives/ feedback much better than organisations. Bureaucratic organisations are probably the slowest to react. India might be taking up consultancies and private-public partnerships, but actual implementation is still choked. Arun Shourie on this is particularly insightful.

    3. OK, I would ideally like there to be no centralised school lunch at all. Let parents supply the lunch of their choice. Then they can make their individual tradeoffs between cost, convenience and health. The problem is that this isn’t feasible for poor parents/ working parents. So the next best solution would be to not have lunch at school at all, and instead give the kids lunch vouchers to use at a darshini or something. Again, this is not going to be feasible outside an urban situation. So, if it HAS to come down to the choice you’ve given, I’d say go with minimise cost, subject to basic standards of quality. If we’re talking malnourished kids (which is where the mid-day meal has had the maximum impact), then the important thing is that there is food, not particularly that it’s a balanced diet, or pesticide-free, etc.

    4. I was ambiguous. I meant to say that fundamentally interconnected things like bars in Singapore, DBabble, and DRL’s capital raising strategy can provide us insights into how to reduce information asymmetry without involving government (or any centralised authority).

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