The cost of free school meals for children in Finland varies vastly depending on the municipality providing the service, according to data collected by education officials.
Data gathered by the National Agency for Education (NEA) show that Ingå (Inkoo in Finnish), a municipality of just 5,400 residents in southern Finland, provides a single school meal for just 64 cents a day.
Apart from Ingå, officials in Kerava, about 30 kilometres north of Helsinki, were also able to provide a student meal affordably, at 1.69 euros.
With a population of less than 1,000 and located in southwest Finland, the municipality of Kustavi lies at the other end of the spectrum and pays 8.45 euros per day to feed a single student.
Officials in Ingå provide lunches for a total of 395 students each day, while the corresponding number in Kustavi is just 33, no doubt accounting for the broad price variation between the two.
In Kerava, meanwhile, officials are feeding just over 3,500 students daily for the 1.69-euro price tag. By comparison, the city of Helsinki provides meals for a total of more than 41,000 children at a cost of 2.41 euros per day per student.
Officials calculating the price of a school meal generally include other ancillary costs such as staff salaries, foodstuffs, equipment and fittings, transportation and food bought externally.
Questions over comparability
After calling around to various municipalities however, Yle found that the reported costs -- and the calculation methods -- differed from place to place.
"The Inkoo figure is just the cost of a lunch. It doesn’t include side dishes and transportation for example – those are all extra," explained Tarja Siik of food services company Sodexo, which provides school meals in Ingå.
Kerava food services manager Liisa Eloranta also said that she suspects that there are huge discrepancies in how the costs gathered were calculated.
"Kerava did not include rental costs. However I know that they were included by the neighbouring municipality," Eloranta added.
Statistics Finland assisted the National Education Agency in the data gathering exercise. The education agency said that municipalities are obligated to provide accurate information.
"Municipalities and cities receive explicit instructions about the about the information they should provide. The National Education Agency assumes that the data are comparable," said agency adviser Marjaana Manninen.
National average less than three euros
According to the NEA’s statistics, the average cost of providing a single student with school meals is 2.80 euros per day. Officials noted however that the growing popularity of vegetarian and organic food is putting upward pressure on the cost of providing meals.
"Organic food may be as much as 50 percent more expensive. There are big differences in vegetarian options," said service designer Timo Salmi of Pori in western Finland.
Located in central Pori, the Cygnaeus food service centre provides roughly 7,000 meals to local daycares and schools every day. Nearly 1,500 additional people dine there daily.
According to the NEA’s statistics, school meals in Pori cost 2.85 euros per day per student.
"Here the cost could drop to below 2.50, but for example at one school in Reposaari in coastal Pori where there are fewer than 50 students, the price per child could be as high as seven or eight euros a day," Salmi explained.
He advised that good menu planning is the key to managing costs.
The full list of municipalities and related school lunch prices per student per day is available on the NEA's website (in Finnish, third table on the page).