Japanese company develops app to provide lunches to students

FUKUOKA — On a mid-March day just before breaking for spring holiday, a large group of students at Fukuoka Futaba School in Fukuoka City’s Chuo Ward gathered on the first floor to get their lunches. But they were not in a cafeteria.

The students had come to pick up boxed lunches that they had ordered, which they brought back to their classrooms of the combined junior and senior high school to eat.

A start-up in Fukuoka City developed the boxed lunch ordering system specifically for students whose schools do not serve lunches, and the service has been spreading nationwide.

The system allows students to order a lunch via smartphone, which is then delivered to their school. Offering the benefits of lessening parents’ lunch-preparation burden and reducing food loss in the boxed lunch industry, it has already expanded to about 100 schools in the first year since its launch.

The system is called Pecofree. (“Peco” roughly translates as “starving.”) Students place their order via a smartphone app by 9 a.m., with a variety of meals to choose from. Each costs ¥450, with payment made by electronic money or other online means.

Orders are handled by a local lunchbox vendor, which prepares the meals that day and delivers them to the school.

“I sometimes order on mornings when my parents are busy,” a 16-year-old student at Futaba School who used the service said. “I use it a few times a month.” The parent of another student expressed satisfaction, saying: “There are times I can’t go shopping because of my job, so I can count on it in a pinch. It’s good to also know what [my child] is eating.”

Many students at Futaba bring their own boxed lunches, but more than a few buy sweet buns or other items from vending machines on campus. However, the vending machines are sometimes sold out or have long lines, so the school decided to introduce the Pecofree system to expand the lunch options. On high-order days, as many as 150 meals are prepared, which represents about 20% of the student body.

Tatsuo Kawanami, 38, the president of the company that operates Pecofree, had previously worked at a food service company and been involved in school cafeteria operations. Seeing first hand how difficult it was to estimate the amount of food needed at school cafeterias and how profits could be squeezed due to food waste, he came up with the idea of using information technology to address the problem.

The idea won the top prize in the Nishi-Nippon Financial Holdings Inc.’s business contest in 2020, and the system was launched in April last year.

The business model is structured so that the company concludes contracts with individual schools, which do not bear any of the operating costs, and receives a commission from the lunchbox vendors.

The system has been introduced in about 80 schools in Fukuoka Prefecture, and has also stretched to high schools in the Kanto region and Aichi Prefecture. To ensure profits during summer vacations and other long school closures, the business at the end of last year was expanded to be applicable for childcare services for elementary school students.

“I want to make the lunchbox industry as a whole into a profitable and sustainable business while making parents and students happy,” Kawanami said.