This text was originally published on the blog of the Finnish Institute in London-
The provision of free school meals comes with some costs but many benefits. School meals as a part of the education experience plays a part in promoting a healthy lifestyle and good manners. Mirroring current trends in education, the provision of school meals is becoming increasingly pupil-centred.
During the Glasgow Party Conference, Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, promised to introduce free universal school meals for the first three years of primary education. The proposed policy has been lauded in some corners of the press while others have lamented the extra £600 million cost during times of austerity – the underlying assumption being that this policy proposal represents an extra ‘benefit’ for well-to-do families who wouldn’t really need it.
In Finland, school food is not conceived as a ‘benefit’, but a part of the education experience. School lunches are an integral part of the school for both the pupils and teachers. School meals are used as a pedagogical tool to teach healthy nutrition and eating habits. It is in the school canteen that many children learn about the proper dining etiquette and skills, for example how to peel potatoes and remove fish bones. It also serves as an introduction to national and international food cultures.
In addition to its health-related, nutritional education and the learning of manners, lunches have a social role in the schools. During school lunches, pupils have time to interact with each other and their teachers in a more relaxed way. It is a good chance for teachers, who eat with their classes, to monitor the pupils and interact with pupils from different classes.
The provision of free school food can be a way to help combat the obesity crisis. Finnish schools meals are required to adhere to strict nutritional guideline and hence introduce kids to healthy eating habits. Similarly a recent UK Impact Report concluded after a two-year pilot study that the provision of free school meals immediately decreases the consumption of unhealthy food (sugary beverages, crisps) and increases the consumption of vegetables. It also showed that educational attainment improved in early primary school pupils as well.
Despite its pedagogical and health benefits, the provision of free school food also presents challenges. For instance, it is estimated school meals for each Finnish pupil accounts for around 8% of total costs the municipalities pay for education[iii]. There is also the issue about providing meals for pupils with special dietary needs, whether they are due to allergies, ethics or religion. This necessitates the close cooperation between the children, parents and the school personnel throughout the pupil’s time in education. This challenge to provide ethical and healthy food that is inexpensive and tasty to all means that Finnish schools often experience days when food is wasted.
These shortcomings, interestingly enough, are also the reason why school meals are an area with many experiments and innovations. Recently, Helsinki schools introduced a weekly vegetarian day to help reduce food-based CO2 emissions. Moreover, in the city of Jyväskylä there has been an experiment of selling leftover food to the public at inexpensive prices to help reduce waste and generate income.
A popular development is to make education pupil-centred. A report for the Welsh government stresses the importance of moving away from a ‘high street business model’ (providing many options) to one that conceives school canteens as ‘citizen-centred social enterprises’ that are co-designed by pupils themselves in order to make school food fun and innovative. Similarly, the Finnish Ministry of Education aims to have school meals that reflect the interests of the schools, the pupils and their parents. They also envisage that pupils can take an active role preparing school meals in order to foster an inclusive and communal spirit.
An interesting practical experiment in empowering students was conducted when a professional design studio was brought into a local school in Vantaa for three days in order ‘redesign’ the school dining experience with the pupils. As a result, they made comprehensive suggestions to improve the overall process and aesthetics of school dining.
Free school meals should not be seen merely as a benefit to poorer students, but as an institution that can play an integral part in education, being a conduit to learn about food and healthy eating. School food is also an area that is undergoing major changes in the UK and Finland, moving to a more pupil-centred provision model. The ‘OPPI – Helsinki Learning Festival’ in April 2014 is the ideal place to discuss school meals, its future and importance.