Finland's National Agency for Education on Thursday issued its first dietary recommendations for vocational & high schools. They emphasise healthy, sustainable food choices and a sense of community. The guidelines urge educational institutions to offer vegetarian food on a daily basis and to tackle food waste.
The agency issued dietary guidelines for comprehensive school pupils in 2008, updating them in 2017. Parallel recommendations for early childhood education were published last year, but this is the first time such principles have been issued for secondary schools.
The guidelines say that in choosing raw materials, school kitchens should always consider their impact on health, climate and the environment.
"The decisions that are made now will have an impact on the future. Choices about eating are key from the standpoints of sustainable lifestyles and the wellbeing of the environment. It is our societal responsibility to make sustainable choices as easy and feasible as possible for individuals," says Marjaana Manninen, Counsellor of Education at the National Agency for Education.
By the secondary education stage, usually beginning at age 15-16, some students are already taking responsibility for their own personal economy and diet. Therefore recommendations for this age group are crucial in terms of guiding young adults' dining and consumer habits.
"Vegetarian" label a turn-off for some
According to Manninen, the new principles are partly driven by changes in youngsters' consumption. For instance, more are switching to vegetarian diets. Therefore the new recommendations aim to provide better information for both students and those who prepare their school meals, she says.
On the other hand, the document suggests that it may be better not to use the term "vegetarian food" to describe meatless dishes.
"It brings an unnecessarily negative tone to the conversation when after all we are talking about familiar dishes such as spinach soup or spinach pancakes. They have long been on school menus, but categorising them as vegetarian food brings the wrong kind of tone for some people," Manninen observes.
A sense of community
The dietary recommendations also stress the significance of meals in advancing wellbeing and a sense of community.
"It's not just a question of what students eat, but also that they feel well and can spend time together in the middle of the school day," says Jouni Järvinen, another senior official at the National Agency for Education.
The guidelines encourage greater cooperation between school kitchens and students, and includes suggestions on how to get youngsters involved. They also stress the broader dimension of school dining, notes Arja Lyytikäinen, secretary general of the National Nutrition Council.
"Food services play a greater role beyond producing nutritious, tasty meals," she says. "It also includes facilitating healthy, sustainable choices and conveying the importance of eating on a regular basis."