Health & Nutrition – Free for all

What lessons can the UK learn from Finland, which has a well-established tradition of providing free, high-quality school meals to all students? Meredith Jones Russell reports us

After Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford put free school meals at the top of the social and political agenda during the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s need for a high-quality, nutritious and healthy lunch every day has been highlighted across the UK. But in Finland, the importance of providing free meals has been widely accepted for decades.

Finland is believed to have been the first country in the world to offer free school meals when this policy was introduced in 1943, and to this day its government provides free meals to all school students between the ages of six and 18.

Principles of Equality

On its website for international cultural promotion, Finland Toolbox, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs states: “School meals are an investment in equality and the future. They build equality between children of different backgrounds, and promote equal opportunities.

Susan Berkowski, co-founder and head of education at New Nordic School, agrees. From the very beginning, schools, early years and nurseries in Finland were built on the principles of equality. Everyone who has a warm meal, nutritious food, regardless of whether he can pay for it, is the first step towards equality. This is the essence of the importance of school lunch in Finland.

Finland is now the third most prosperous country in the world and is regularly ranked among the happiest countries. But at the beginning of the twentieth century it was not well off, with GDP being less than half that of the United Kingdom and the United States, and it was crippled by losses in World War II.

However, its relative poverty only motivated politicians to address the deprivation many children were experiencing at the time.

Dr Arja Lyytinen, Associate Professor at the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Eastern Finland, explains, “There has been a lot of concern about how to feed children and ensure they get more food, as there has been a lot of inequality and children who do not have enough food. the food. The process of getting free meals was a long process and started with very simple steps. At first, lunches were often very simple things like soup or porridge. The children would bring milk and bread from home in their backpacks, then get a warm meal at school. It has gradually evolved into a more complete meal, which nowadays meets a third of children’s daily energy needs.

Dr. Littenen says the social impact of free school meals is vital. Ensures that children get the same types of food for better equality. They can’t bully each other about who has a better packed lunch. It also helps ensure equality for parents, who can trust that when their children go to school, they are getting good food. This removes the burden on parents to prepare a packed lunch, allowing more time to work, leading to improved gender equality, which in turn can positively impact national productivity and economic growth.

In fact, the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Finland fourth in the world for gender equality, with an employment rate of 72.5 percent for men and 70.7 percent for women in 2020.

Budgeting for a list

While the Basic Education Act states that students must be provided with a balanced meal every school day, each municipality is ultimately responsible for evaluating what school meals are served and how much is spent on them. Budgets are set locally, so the composition of meals is highly dependent on the decision-making process of the councils.

“Cost is a factor,” says Dr. Littenen. The average school meal costs around €2.80, which covers the ingredients and work involved in preparing the food. There is no funding for school meals, so each municipality has to think about the cost and where to put the money, as well as what to provide. This means that meals can look very different in different areas.

However, there is some coherence across municipalities, with Nordic nutrition recommendations forming the basis for all dietary guidelines across Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden (see more information). They are then used by the Finnish government to form official meal recommendations.

Traditional Finnish foods such as oats, rye, barley, potatoes, onions, cabbage, root vegetables, berries and mushrooms, are staples on most menus. Fish is also a great advantage.

For example, the lunch menu might include:

  • Dish: vegetables (fresh or cooked).
  • ¼ dish: potatoes, rice or pasta.
  • ¼ plate: fish, meat or vegetarian option.
  • Drink: water, different milk options.
  • Sides: Bread or rye bread with ghee or butter.
  • Dessert: berries or fruit (other desserts are also served for special occasions or if the energy content of the main meal is not high).

Schools also serve at least one vegetarian meal per week.

food education

As part of a comprehensive curriculum, school diets are part of every student’s education in Finland. They are used to help teach children about nutrition, health and good eating habits, as well as communication skills, social skills during meal times, independence and sharing, for example by serving themselves in buffet-style school canteens.

“Nutrition education is high on the research agenda because we want more models of how to teach children good food so that more of them can eat it,” Dr. Littenen explains. “If kids don’t eat all of their meals, they won’t get the nutritional value.”

So the children regularly participate in the planning of the menu, and are invited to provide feedback on the foods served.

“This gives children ownership of their learning but also helps ensure that schools provide food for everyone to eat,” says Dr. Littenen.

The educational benefit of a good lunch is also important. “Nutritional status affects brain development and function,” adds Dr. Letinen. “One interesting study from Denmark, where children typically eat a takeaway lunch from home, found that when children ate a healthy lunch at school, there was an improvement in reading performance.”

Thematic weeks, harvests, international festival celebrations and trips to the outdoors and farms also help to include nutrition education in the school curriculum, while sustainability is a growing concern, and updates on Nordic nutrition recommendations in 2022 are expected to address the environmental impact of food.

Corona virus disease

During the pandemic, schools in Finland closed for two months. While the students were at home, the schools continued to provide them with a packed lunch that families could come and collect. Not every meal was hot, but over time, meals that could be heated at home were added to the show.

“There was always an expectation that kids would still be eating lunch during the pandemic,” Berkowski says. She notes with a hint of surprise that universal free school meals are still a long way off in the UK.

“Of course, it’s a lot easier in Finland because the population is not that big, so it’s more controllable,” she admits. But, having said that, if you provide education for all, surely lunch should be provided as a matter of course. It’s just a matter of releasing government funding. What Marcus Rashford did was amazing, and I have great respect for him. But surprisingly, he, as an individual, had to do so. It really should be the government.

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