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Exporting Finnish school meals to Britain

The Finnish model of providing free school meals to children of all ages has been adopted in Britain this autumn for children aged 4 to 7. While it's a big step forward, experts warn that healthy meals alone are not enough to combat obesity among children, a growing problem in Finland and other countries.

Hitherfieldin koululaiset ruokailemassa.
School children in South London enjoy a free lunch, based on the Finnish model that is 60 years old. Image: Yle

At South London's Hitherfield Primary School, all children aged 4 to 7 now receive a free warm lunch. Previously only lower income kids did, while others ate meals packed by their parents.

“Today we’re having sausages and they’re yummy,” says 6-year-old Marley.

Hitherfield's Head Teacher Chris Ashley-Jones lauds the initiative.

"We know that every child is having a hot meal and a good quality meal, so we're really pleased about that. It's been a really big improvement," says Ashley-Jones.

The improvement in recent years of British school food is due to the efforts of advocates such as celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Henry Dimbleby, founder of Leon restaurants chain and the School Food Plan, which campaigns to improve the quality of food for children. Dimbleby credits Finland.

"We drew on your evidence and evidence from trials in the UK, but if we hadn't had the evidence from Finland it probably would have never happened," says Dimbleby, whose restaurants aim to serve healthy fast food. 

He hopes to serve free school lunches to older students too, but can’t say how soon that will happen.

“It could happen in a year or two or next week. We need to continue fighting for it,” he says.

Finland not a perfect role model

But in Britain not everyone believes that free school meals are the magic solution for ending childhood obesity, which is a growing problem around the world.

The World Health Organization estimates that 42 million children under the age of five worldwide are officially overweight or obese. 

According to Finnish public health and policy expert Pekka Puska, in London for a lecture, adopting Finland's 60-year-old school lunch tradition will have a big impact on national health in Britain. But, he says “here too, it has been noted that Finland is not a paradise. In particular, obesity among young people is a growing problem that we need to address.”

According to 2012 statistics from Helsinki University hospital (HUS) 50 to 80 percent of overweight children carry excess weight into adulthood.

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