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Cities cook up free meals for distance learners during coronavirus crisis

As students learn at home, city officials say they want to support families that may struggle to feed their kids. 

Kouluruokailua Maatullin ala-asteen koululla.
Only a small minority of students are still attending classes at school and eating warm meals on-site. Image: Ronnie Holmberg / Yle

With schools largely closed to contain the spread of novel coronavirus, many families that depended on Finland’s 70-year-old system of free school meals may be facing a bigger food bill with youngsters spending all of their time at home.

Last June, the National Education Agency estimated that some 830,000 school meals were served annually, mostly to students in basic education (up to the age of 17), at an overall cost of 434 million euros, according to 2016 figures. However government has estimated that overall just seven percent of students are still going to school during the pandemic.

In most places it is still possible to get a free school meal — but pupils learning remotely might have to jump through a few more hoops.

Education Minister Li Andersson said on Thursday that despite the extraordinary circumstances, students are still entitled to receive free meals from municipalities.

"As has been previously directed, children participating in contact learning still have the right to a school meal during the day. School meals for children in distance learning can be arranged on whatever scale is possible, however, taking into account the guidelines on avoiding and reducing close contact," the minister said at a press conference.

As there are no national guidelines on how to provide these meals, councils nationwide have adopted different practices and rules.

Espoo city communications specialist Maija Ruoho told Yle News that under normal circumstances, the city provides warm meals for 38,000 pupils attending comprehensive and upper secondary schools.

She said that the city moved quickly to put together a programme to provide a daily snack for kids missing out on school meals. From 30 March they could get light meals daily between 12.30 and 1.30pm at various distribution points.

"We wanted to find a way to help families who may not be able to provide a warm meal at home. It will be a sandwich, fruit and a drink," Ruoho explained.

Thousands sign up in first week

Pupils' parents are required to register for the snack using Wilma, the nationwide home-school communication system. They can indicate whether a parent, students themselves or a family member will collect the snack pack.

Ruoho said that in the first week of the programme some 3,000 students registered for meals. She says it will soon be possible to make a recurring "reservation", rather than signing up every week for the subsequent week.

Story continues after photo

Espoo city school snack bag
One of the snack packs provided by the City of Espoo. Image: City of Espoo

Espoo has provided information about the scheme in Wilma and issued bulletins in different languages on its website, including in English. It has also addressed frequently asked questions about the arrangements.

No registration in Vantaa

The neighbouring city of Vantaa rolled out a similar programme on 2 April. Deputy mayor Katri Kalske told Yle News that during normal contact teaching, the municipality provides meals to around 24,000 children in basic education and 2,700 pre-schoolers. Many of those children are now in distance learning and won’t get the normal lunch.

"We want to ensure that pupils in need of a free lunch also get one during distance learning," she added.

No prior registration is required to receive the snacks, which can be picked up twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 3pm and 5.30pm and may contain fruit, porridge, crackers and the like.

"We have reserved 3,800 meal packages per day to start off. And will increase or decrease the number according to demand. Our estimate is that demand will stabilise after Easter, when we are able to provide an estimate of the average daily demand for meal packages," the deputy mayor explained.

Tampere mulls deliveries for some, Turku turns to takeaways

In Tampere, Finland’s most populous inland city, officials said that just three percent of about 20,000 children in basic education are attending classes. They get school lunch as normal but education director Kristiina Järvelä told Yle News that students learning remotely should call ahead if they also want a meal.

"Every child has the ability to have lunch, they just have to contact their principal in advance," Järvelä told Yle News, although she added that pupils who don’t provide advance notice will likely not be turned away.

Only 35-40 remote learners per day have been coming in for meals. "Some parents just don’t want to take the chance and send their children out to school," she observed.

Järvelä said that the city is currently working with social services to identity and deliver lunches to vulnerable families whose children may need special support.

Turku currently has nearly 15,000 children in pre-school and basic education. Children doing distance learning will be given take-away meals from 6 April, if they place an email order by 10am on the preceding workday.

"Registration ensures that we will be able to provide a meal to everyone who wants one and in addition it is rational for preventing waste," Turku’s basic education service director Tommi Tuominen said in a statement.

Sit-down meals in Helsinki and Kauniainen

Officials in the capital Helsinki estimated that 97 percent or roughly 43,000 basic education pupils (in Finnish) are no longer attending school physically and are learning remotely instead.

The city continues to provide sit-down meals for students at their respective schools, but remote learners need to sign up in advance if they want the free lunch. Communications manager Hanna-Kaisa Talvensaari told Yle News that currently 300 distance learners go in for school lunches every day.

In much smaller 10,000-resident Kauniainen, a programme that began on 24 March provides distance learners with a daily warm lunch.

Students should also sign up for lunch, which is served at one school, Kasavuoren koulu, between 11 and 11.30am daily.

Cities mindful of safety guidelines

Officials from Espoo and Vantaa said that one of the reasons that they have opted for snacks-to-go rather than warm meals is that they want to comply with current government guidelines banning groups of more than 10.

Personnel will also be on hand to ensure that crowds do not form at pick-up points. Officials in Vantaa and Espoo are also recommending that the meals be taken home to be eaten there, rather than out in the open.

In Kauniainen, where students can still dine on the premises, authorities have urged students to maintain a safe distance from each other. They recommend leaving at least every other seat empty and not sitting opposite another diner -- ideally, there should be at least one metre between pupils.

Turku said that it has staggered the distribution of meals to prevent queues forming and urged people to observe social distancing guidelines, to remain one metre away from others and to wash their hands. Parents are being informed of the arrangements via Wilma.

Tampere’s Järvelä noted that students still attending contact lessons sit separately from distance learners who come to school only for lunch, in a bid to prevent contagion.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced an extension of emergency measures that would see schools remain closed until at least 13 May. According to Vantaa and Espoo city officials -- and others -- they are prepared to provide the meal service until the situation returns to normal.

"We will continue for as long as distance learning continues. For as long as it is needed," Espoo’s Maija Ruoho concluded.

Edit: Updated at 3.07pm with additional information from City of Helsinki about the number of remote learners having school meals.

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