A warm, well-rounded school meal provides important fuel for the learning brain and is part of the school’s educational task.

Finland has a source of pride, whose uniqueness is not always fully appreciated here at home: a warm school meal. Worldwide, only the Finnish and Swedish governments are required by law to offer children a free, well-rounded school meal. This has been the case in Finland since 1948.

“A social innovation of its time,” defines Seija Lintukangas, who examined meals as part of education in her dissertation completed in 2009.

After all, guidelines define the provision of school meals to be part of teaching. Currently around 900,000 pupils, or one in every six Finns, enjoys a free meal every school day.

In addition to pupils in pre-primary and basic education, pupils in upper secondary and vocational schools also get to fill their stomachs with warm food. Pre-primary pupils begin to enjoy the privilege at around the age of six, and the service is usually available to them until they turn eighteen.

Journalists as lunch guests

Finland’s success in the OECD’s PISA surveys has contributed to the excellent international reputation of Finnish basic education. The University of Helsinki receives a steady stream of international journalists who want to visit the Viikki Teacher Training School and learn more about teacher training.

“School lunch always gets positive feedback from our visitors,” says press officer Karin Hannukainen, who hosts the University’s international guests.

Not long ago, journalist Alexis Duval spoke very highly about the lunch system at Viikki in an article published in Le Monde. He praised the atmosphere at mealtime, the food served, as well as the idea of equality that the meal reflects.

Preventing hunger and obesity

According to Hannukainen, journalists from the UK and USA have noted the healthiness of Finnish school lunch, which is based on dietary guidelines. Both countries are witnessing animated discussions about school meals and their contribution to pupils’ weight gain. In the UK, Jamie Oliver and in the USA, Michelle Obama are campaigning for well-rounded school meals.

Indian visitors, in turn, marvel at the daily vegetarian option, while guests from developing countries may mention that most of their primary school pupils go hungry while learning to read.

Teaching equality and recycling

Elina Kytö, who wrote her Master’s thesis on school meals last year, emphasises the educational value of meals: “A shared canteen lunch promotes equality, but is also a lesson in recycling and in taking others into consideration.”

In Kytö’s study, soups and other simple dishes emerged as the favourites. Casseroles high in fat and covered in cheese were the least popular: eaters want to see and understand what they put in their mouths.

“Changes in eating habits are making meals more and more international – the school is following the times,” Kytö concludes.

In Finland, school meals may not have the reputation they deserve, but the student feedback in Kytö’s study was more positive than the public discussion may lead one to expect.

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