If there’s something the Finnish welfare state is known for, even in comparison to the other Nordic welfare states, it’s education. Finland’s PISA scores have been world-class for years, and the northern country’s education system has featured in countless gushing articles and academic studies. It’s even received visits from foreign educators who wish to emulate its success.
However, testing and scores are not all it has to offer. The Finnish education system is a holistic entity, of which school meals are an essential part. Finland was among the world’s pioneers of free school meals and today provides them to around nine hundred thousand children between the ages of six and sixteen.
“In a way, free school meals are a good symbol for the Finnish welfare state. It is a universal benefit that is useful for everyone, and crucial for some. The welfare of Finland relies heavily on education and knowledge.” This is the opinion of the man in charge of these policies — Finland’s education minister Jussi Saramo of the Left Alliance.
“Today all pupils and students attending pre-primary, basic, and upper secondary education are entitled to a free-of-charge, full meal,” Saramo continues. “The school meal is seen as an essential part of a child’s wellbeing and growth, and a balanced school meal is more than just nutrition: it sustains the ability to study and increases students’ awareness and knowledge of food and nutrition.”
With his long experience in politics, Mr Saramo was an obvious choice to fill in for Li Andersson, the Left Alliance’s popular leader, who became education minister in 2019. Currently, Andersson is enjoying another popular benefit of the welfare state — long maternity leave after the birth of her first child.
Food for Thought
The connection between food and education goes back a long time in Finland. In the period after the Reformation, it was considered key for everyone to understand the Bible, and during the national awakening, it was believed that education would allow the Finnish-speaking peasant class to challenge the Swedish-speaking aristocracy.
The current school meals program was initiated during the Second World War, as the Finnish government sought to ensure the strength of its future soldiers. But the scheme got going in earnest after the war, on more peaceful grounds, and as a part of the general rebuilding process.
Initially, Finnish school meals consisted mostly of soups and porridges from grain donated by local farmers, supplemented by berries picked by children themselves. That has changed today: current meals include Nordic-style meatballs, macaroni bake, and spinach pancakes. They offer a nutritionist-designed selection, promoting Finnish and particularly local foods.
“Managing school food often comes down to resources, which are subject to political decision-making in municipalities,” Saramo says. “Balancing all necessary criteria — nutrition, taste, effectiveness, versatility, and sustainability — on a single tray of food every school day is a challenge, and it’s important that local politicians steer adequate resources towards school meals.”
Like many other factors of the Finnish welfare state, these meals have an egalitarian element: provided for both the children of the rich and poor, their quality must be high enough that even the most demanding wealthy parents can’t complain. The participation of even the rich in public services ensures that standards are high across the board: this is the case for universalism.
And this is done while keeping the costs in check: “Balanced nutrition provided with relatively tight funding is one of the main successes of Finnish school meals,” says Saramo.
The Effect of COVID-19
Of course, the coronavirus crisis has disrupted education everywhere, and Finland is no exception. One of the best performers in Europe in fighting the virus in terms of both cases and the economy, Finland has not utilized the harsh lockdown measures seen in its Central European equivalents, but it has equally avoided the chaotic and lax approach adopted by Sweden. Only now, as infection rates rise due to exposure to Estonia to the south, are localized curfews being mandated.
One of the most controversial parts of Finland’s COVID response in spring 2020 was the closure of schools for children in third grade or higher — a measure which has not been reintroduced nationally since, even during the current lockdown. Should such a shutdown happen again at some point, schools would still try to deliver meals for students, reflecting the status of school meals as a part of the core curriculum.
Saramo says that at the beginning of the pandemic, schools adapted to their new arrangements very quickly — but organizing meals for pupils attending distance learning took time. “At first, more than half of the municipalities organized school meals only for students in contact teaching. The difficulties municipalities have had in terms of organizing meals are worrying, because of the highly unequal toll distance learning already has on pupils.”
What kind of meals were offered? According to Saramo, “almost half of the municipalities that provided meals for distance learning students offered it as snack or food packages to be picked up from school facilities. But as schools have had time to adapt, meals for those attending distance learning have become better organized.”
Many non-Finns saw a meal bag organized by Tytti Määttä, the manager of the small Eastern municipality of Kuhmo, after it was promoted on British Twitter by politicians as an alternative to a similar UK meal package. The real reason Määttä had posted the package on social media had been to showcase its local goods — an important factor for a small, poor, and sparsely settled area like Kuhmo.
While Saramo’s Left Alliance represents the left side of the parliamentary party system, Määttä represents the Centre Party, which tends more toward the center-right. In Finland, free school meals are not a left-wing or right-wing project — if any party proposed disposing of them, they would be severely damaged in the polls. This shows how a well-functioning welfare state can eventually make its policies part of a common national logic.
Apart from the issues caused by the COVID crisis, whatever problems there are with the school meal project are generally related to minor culture wars — such as a hubbub in Helsinki about whether, for environmental reasons, the schools should serve only vegetarian food one day a week.
The Left Alliance now plans to advance the school meal agenda into new terrain: free school breakfasts. “The aim of the Left Alliance party is to introduce free breakfast for pupils on school days, and we have made initiatives to further this goal in various municipalities,” Saramo says. Likewise, the idea of free school meals serves as an inspiration for making all aspects of education free for children.
“Up until now, school meals have been free of charge in upper secondary schools but learning material has not. The current government has now extended free-for-all education from ninth grade to twelfth grade,” says Saramo. Such an approach demonstrates that even in a tuition-free school system, the extraneous costs of education still pose a barrier to poorer families.
It also shows how, despite everything, the work of creating a more equal school system is not finished in Finland. There are other issues to tackle, including improving the participation of children from immigrant backgrounds and improving psychiatric services.
Nevertheless, the work of welfare state is rarely about changing and revamping everything — it is about finding ways to improve people’s lives, one reform at a time. And there are few improvements more worthwhile than making sure every child can study without going hungry.