The issue of premade food on school campuses became the hottest debate on mainland Chinese social media platforms this September with the start of the K–12 academic year.
Premade food refers to sets of ready-made meals, either frozen or packaged in vacuum-sealed bags that can be heated and served. Upon learning of the new ultra-processed lunches, Chinese parents began protesting and took to social media to voice their concerns.
After the public outcry, the Ministry of Education stepped in on September 22, 2023, and expressed a “cautious attitude” towards the issue of pre-cooked meals in schools. Many have anticipated that once the authorities established unified standards, certification systems and traceability systems, more schools would open their door to rapidly growing pre-cooked food services.
The expanding premade food market
The premade food sector has developed rapidly thanks to the three years of zero-COVID control in mainland China. Because a large number of restaurants were forced to shut down, there was a strong demand for ready-made food for those living under quarantine. And even now that the pandemic has subsided, the sector continues to grow. In 2022, the market value of the pre-cooked food industry was up to CNY 419.6 billion (USD 56 billion), and it has been estimated that by 2025, the figure will be over CNY 800 billion (USD 109.66 billion).
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council endorsed calls to develop the premade food industry in February 2023. Then in March, during the annual Two Sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Sun Boguo, a people’s representative and an expert on food additives and preservation science, claimed that the premade food industry would boost domestic consumption and rural development. The agenda of using premade food at schools across the country was put forward during the discussion and backed by the business sector and some governmental departments, as it could help the schools lower the cost of running school canteens and solve food safety problems.
News about food poisoning on school campuses runs quite frequently in news headlines in China. Last June, a cooked mouse head in a school canteen dish sparked national outrage over food safety — particularly after officials in Jiangxi province attempted to cover up the incident.
After the Two Sessions, new players rushed to enter the market. The most controversial is Zhang Hezi, the founder and president of the largest COVID-19 testing firm, Nucleus Gene, which was alleged to have fabricated PCR test results last year. Zhang registered a subsidiary company in May in Wuhan for agricultural science research, as well as the production and sale of farm produce and instant food.
Many believe that his change of business path is not a coincidence. On Weibo user said:
PCR test, premade food entering school campuses. The aggressive investment in these two totally different industries has to fulfill one condition: winning the government's public tender[Correct word?] or having the support of related government departments. Zhang did it, how powerful!
Indeed, as the new semester started, some parent groups found that their kids’ schools had shifted to precooked food for lunch. In response, parents rushed to school to deliver homemade meals to their kids and flooded government online platforms with angry remarks. In Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, parents protested outside the school on September 4, demanding the reopening of the school canteen:
Below is a summary of parents’ views shared on Chinese social media regarding the issue of premade meals on school campuses:
1. Schools should not allow pre-cooked food to enter the school campus
2. I finally understand why rich kids all leave the country
3. Now, for the sake of profit, capitalists are hurting our young ones
4. The ingredient list shows that pre-cooked food is a product of additives.
5. Many pre-cooked foods can be preserved for up to one year; they can’t be fresh.
6. If pre-cooked food is safe, let the civil servants eat it first.
7. Our supervision of food production has a bad reputation, there is no guarantee that the pre-cooked food is healthy.
8. The rich kids would not eat junk food. Hence, they give it to poor kids. We should never open the door to that.
9. I don’t understand why cooking a proper meal for kids is too difficult.
10. How can people still give birth to the next generation?
11. Pre-cooked food entering the campus is like poisoning the future of the nation.
Many also expressed worries that the premade food business will exploit the vulnerability of children. A widely shared commentary from a Chinese leftist site, Red Song Club, for example, stated:
All premade food, including the more traditional pickled vegetable and bean curd or the newly invented instant hotpot or Luosifen, etc., aren’t supposed to be consumed daily as recommended by nutritionists…. Yet, the current wave of school campuses shifting to pre-cooked food, unlike instant noodles or Luosifen, which play a complementary role, aims to replace the daily diet of hundreds of millions of school kids. Such a policy is unprecedented. We have no objection to pre-cooked food in a free market competition environment, like the development of instant noodles. Yet, we can let the future of our nation play the role of a [laboratory] white mouse by granting pre-cooked food direct access to schools.
Views from the food industry, however, argue that premade food has a higher standard of food safety when compared to local kitchens, as they are prepared in a centralized kitchen with a standardized process and a controlled environment.
Yet, even if the premade food is safe, it may generate other problems, as pointed out by Hong Rong, a finance investor on Weibo:
From an investment point of view, I am positive about the pre-cooked food sector because it is an industrialization process. It will lower costs, increase the sector's efficiency and expand the market. But concerning the taste of pre-cooked food, its implication on people’s health, restriction on food types, etc.[…] Clearly, the law is lagging. That’s why if the sector expands too rapidly, it will generate many problems. More importantly, the restaurant sector has provided a large number of jobs at the local level, and the development of pre-cooked food will lead to some unemployment. Under the current job market, some families will suffer.
Some are also worried that the centralized kitchens will lead to a monopoly of the pre-cooked food sector, and very likely, those with government connections will control the new monopolies given their access to school campuses.
Despite all the concerns, the trend of premade food at school seems irreversible, as the premade food sector currently makes up 70 percent of the country's group meal orders. The sector is also ready to reach out to the Chinese diaspora from overseas.