Here’s my newest thing that I am excited about and would like to see installed in Australian schools. In Finland’s schools, every student has a warm, healthy, tasty (it is mandated, so it must be so) meal for lunch, provided by the state. This is something a highly-successful education system should be proud of, and a program Australia should consider emulating.
In Finland, this system was introduced in 1943, with free meals in all schools by 1948. At the time, it was to ensure that Finnish children grew up fit and strong, healthy enough to fight in a war which, in 1943 Finland, was showing no signs of ending.
Nowadays the main reasons behind this policy in Finland’s education system are: to enable improved learning, to teach children what healthy food is, and to provide an arena for learning good social behaviours. Of course, it also functions as a social equaliser – everyone has access to at least one warm, nutritious meal. Talking with a mother of a primary school child, she explains that this system ensures that it doesn’t have to rely on parents providing good meals, and that it teaches students what a healthy meal is. “If they learn nothing else at school,” she tells me, “at least they learn what food is”. And it is clear, of course, that Finnish students are learning a whole lot more than that.
There is nothing radical about the notion that a well-fed person will be able to learn more. Nor, I think, is it particularly revolutionary that learning, studying, and grappling with new ideas requires a large amount of energy. Yet only a handful of countries have followed these thoughts through to their logical conclusion, providing meals to all their students.
Moreover, where some school lunches are apparently provided by fast food chains, Finnish lunches in all schools are required to be “tasty, colourful and well-balanced”. These things are important. I appreciate that consideration is given to its appeal for children. I think that colour is a simple, and in this context sufficient, proxy for a diversity of nutrients and a measure of balance. If my experience is typical, I think the meals are the above three things.
With typical Finnish literalness, when asked how the school lunches are paid for, a school principal answers “With money”. School lunches account for approximately 4-8% of a schools budget. Lunch is a hot meal, with salad and bread. It is often a self-serve affair, with staff and students eating together. A school lunch is generally eaten in groups of four to six people at a table. This is designed to encourage kids to chat with each other over an unhurried meal. Lunch is scheduled separate from time to play, so that children can (must) do both.
Making use of an obvious opportunity, Finnish school lunches are also an arena used to teach what healthy food is, and appropriate social behaviour. The Finns have a very simple, clear way of teaching children what a well-balanced meal is. On a plate there should be one quarter carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, pasta), one quarter protein (meat, beans, fish, etc), and one half salad and vegetables. I appreciate its simplicity compared with the stars and pyramids of Australian nutrition.
Without school meals, I expect that there would be an increase in the already-high consumption of fast food by teenagers in Finland. Nutrition levels would likely decrease, both for this reason and the fact that some students would not be able to afford to source food elsewhere. The free school meal concept has had a tangible effect on Finnish culture. Most adults are in full-time employment and there is a general sense that free school meals have helped to enable parents and carers to work. Lunch is now the main meal of the day. Tertiary students, and often people working outside of home, are provided with a subsidised lunch.
In Australia, I think a similar school-meal program would significantly improve students’ learning, and decrease the gap in achievement between our highest and lowest achievers. Some schools provide breakfast to their students, often paid for by the local community. I don’t have a firm opinion on whether or not the Australian school system should start with breakfast or lunch as a provided meal, but I think the idea of the calm, unhurried meal, enjoyed together, is important. Any programs introduced in Australia must of course be funded appropriately. Sounds obvious, apparently isn’t.
One of the issues Finland hasn’t yet completely overcome, and that any Australian program would have to deal with, is catering to a diversity of needs and food cultures. This is something which can be solved, although in Finland I think that it is still difficult for vegetarians*, vegans and people with particular dietary requirements.
This school meal program is a good example of the general vibe I get when learning about the Finnish education system. It seems that the Finns have looked at what needs to happen to ensure every child gets a solid education, and then worked out how to provide it. Students need good teachers? We’ll make teaching a desirable profession. Students need textbooks and materials? We’ll provide them. Sometimes kids find things particularly difficult? We’ll give them extra help. Kids get hungry when they are at school all day? We better feed them, then. Finnish is a notoriously difficult language to learn? We’ll provide children from elsewhere with one year of instruction in their mother tongue before they join classes taught in Finnish or Swedish. Sure, like the school meals, it isn’t always perfect, but it still makes my heart happy.
~ precis of
*The introduction of a weekly vegetarian day into schools in Helsinki apparently caused the sort of political kerfuffle that spawned viral YouTube videos, and resulted in the vegetarians of Helsinki uniting, taking Brussels sprouts as their emblem. Who said it couldn’t get politically fraught in Helsinki?