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At Finnish schools, there is such a thing as a free lunch – but how much does it really cost?

Daily hot meals served at Finnish schools can cost local authorities anywhere from 1.67 to 8.28 euros a day per student. Some municipalities manage to keep expenditures in check even while offering plenty of local-food and vegetarian choices.

The biggest cities all spend less than three euros a day per pupil. Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

In 1948, Finland became the first country to require all primary schools to serve pupils a free daily hot meal, and remains the one of the few countries where this is true. Now about 900,000 schoolchildren eat a daily school lunch – and for some it may be their only hot meal of the day.

Municipal expenditures per pupil vary greatly around Finland. Most range between around two and six euros per day per student.

The lowest per-capita expenditure is in Vantaa, just north of Helsinki, where schools only spend an average of 1.67 euros a day. The next lowest are the cities of Jyväskylä (€1.79) and Oulu (€1.86)

The biggest spender is the small rural municipality of Puumala in eastern Finland, where the daily cost averages 8.28 euros – although that includes a daily snack as well as a hot lunch. The snack accounts for about a third of the overall cost.

Many towns concentrate on local and vegetarian options. Image: Timo Heikura / Yle

In many other places, parents can buy their children optional cards to buy snacks such as sandwiches, fruit or yoghurt to help them get through long school days – as lunch is sometimes served to some classes before 11 am due to tight cafeteria scheduling.

Other highest costs per child are in Karijoki, Southern Ostrobothnia (€8.03) and Pelkosenniemi, Lapland (€7.82).

Raw materials, transport and prep costs

The data comes from a study by the Finnish National Agency for Education based on figures from 2015, the newest available covering the entire country. The calculated sums include raw materials, transport and preparation costs.

Lunch alone costs over five euros in Puumala, which is still well above the national average of 2.76 euros. The cost is partly attributable to size, as the municipality only has one school with about 130 pupils, with its numbers steadily dropping due to depopulation.

Marjaana Manninen, Counsellor of Education at the Finnish National Agency for Education, says that expenditures do not necessarily correlate to quality. She points out that in large cities, economy of scale means lower per-unit prices. Food is generally purchased and prepared on a centralised basis, and schools are located closer by, cutting transport expenditures. Centralised production also reduces staffing needs and costs.

Farm-to-plate in tiny Tyrnävä

However some small municipalities are able to keep costs under control. For instance, one of the five lowest-spending municipalities was Tyrnävä, south of Oulu in North Ostrobothnia, which has less than 7,000 residents.

There the cost per day per student was just 1.96 euros. Local school food director Tanja Koski says part of the credit for this efficiency goes to its "passionate" workforce.

The result also may seem counterintuitive, as Tyrnävä has decided to favour local food, which is generally considered to raise prices.

Part of every meal is locally-sourced, and at least two days per seven-week rotation are designated as local food days. Overall the municipality calculates that 86 percent of raw materials used are Finnish.

"We have partnerships with good local food producers whose prices are reasonable. Our area produces a lot of grain, potatoes and other root vegetables, which are much cheaper than imported fruit, for instance," Koski notes. She says that Tyrnävä has also cut costs by reducing food waste.

The education agency recommends that school cafeterias offer two choices of main dishes daily, and that one of these be vegetarian. If vegetarian food is not available on a daily basis, it should be offered at least once a week.

Manninen argues that cost should not be an obstacle to such offerings. She points out that Helsinki and Vantaa, which have low daily costs, have offered meatless options daily for many years.

_An earlier version of this story claimed that Finland and Sweden are the only countries to provide free school meals to all pupils. In fact a few other countries, including Estonia, offer free school food. _