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Higher education students to fork out more for school lunches

Students say that an additional 50 cents per meal adds up on a small budget.

Opiskelija syö lounasta yliopiston ravintolassa.
Students will likely pay more for meals unless government sets aside funds to increase Kela's meal subsidy. Image: Paulus Markkula / Yle

New government regulations to take effect from 1 August will increase the maximum cost of school lunches for higher education students in Finland by 46 cents, but it's not yet clear if students themselves will have to pay extra.

The new rules aim to provide better quality meals and increase the maximum cost of a school meal for tertiary education students to five euros, up from 4.54 euros.

The Social Insurance Insurance Institution of Finland, Kela, normally covers 1.90 euros for each student, so they have been paying 2.60 euros per meal. Kela has not yet made any decision to increase the meal subsidy, so students will likely have to pay 3.06 euros per lunch when the new academic year begins in August.

"It may not sound like a lot, but for a student every penny counts. On a monthly and annual level it adds up to a fair sum," second-year Jyväskylä University sports science faculty student Iida Henttu said.

The National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL) has the same view.

"Students already have low incomes and for reasons of social security, it is important to avoid increases in essential living expenses. On average meals account for a quarter of students’ expenses,” SYL board member Paavo Antikainen noted.

Some caterers to increase prices

Some caterers providing school lunches have already set new prices for the new school year. Jyväskylä-based Semma, which operates restaurants and supplies school lunches, said that it will not hike the price students pay to the maximum 3.06 euros, but will charge 2.80 for a meal.

"We don’t need to go with the maximum price. This increase will allow us to increase the selection and raw materials without affecting students’ budgets excessively," Semma CEO Jarmo Sallinen said.

Meanwhile Juvenes, a restaurant chain owned by the Tampere University student body, said it plans to implement the full increase in prices at the till. In addition to Tampere, Juvenes also operates diners in Oulu, Vaasa and Seinäjoki.

"We desperately need this increase so we can produce high quality lunches for students and comply with nutrition guidelines," Juvenes chief executive Päivi Lindén commented via email.

Other decisions to come in August

Many large meal providers said they have not yet decided on pricing but that hikes are likely on the way. The last time that higher education lunch prices rose was eight years ago, they pointed out.

"Since that time our overall costs have increased by 17 percent. Prices for some raw ingredients have risen by even more," Semma’s Sallinen noted.

French catering giant Sodexo, which operates student cafeterias throughout the country, said that different canteens will have different price levels.

"We will be negotiating price levels with our customers," communications director Mira Perander explained.

Compass Group, which runs Fazer Food restaurants, had a similar position to Sodexo.

Minna-Mari Mentula, service manager at the Southeast Finland University of Applied Sciences, Xamk, said that the institution will review lunch prices and that it would issue an announcement at a later date. Xamk provides student meals at campuses in Mikkeli, Savonlinna, Kotka and Kouvola.

UniCafe, which provides student meals in Helsinki, said it will make a decision about new prices in August.

"There is pressure to increase prices and the coronavirus crisis has added to it. We hope we won’t have to go with the maximum increase," said UniCafe business director Leena Pihlajamäki.

Calls to increase Kela subsidy

Meanwhile benefits agency Kela is still to say whether or not it will also increase support for students by covering more of the meal payments. According to a petition circulated by student unions, restaurant industry associations and service sector unions, it would cost Kela 7.8 million euros a year to subsidise student lunches at the new price level.

"Increasing the meal subsidy is one of our major objectives for autumn budget negotiations," SYL’s Antikainen said.

Kela’s contribution to the school meals has previously risen to reflect higher meal costs. However even if government decided to allocate more money to help support students, they will still have to cover the increase themselves for about six months.

"I wish that the meal subsidy had increased at the same time [as the decision on the new rule] and that the price hike would not have been borne by students," Sallinen said.

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