Up to 60 percent of eighth and ninth graders leave their free midday school meal uneaten at least once or several times a week, according to the results from the National Institute of Health and Welfare’s (THL) latest school health survey of 70,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 throughout Finland.
There are large variations among municipalities in terms of how many pupils eat their school lunch. In many small municipalities almost all students partake of the daily school meal. In larger cities, however, it’s more common for youngsters to bypass the school lunch in favour of other options.
For example, in Kerava, 60 percent of eighth and ninth graders say that they don’t eat the school lunch every day of the week. The situation is similar in Ruovesi and Keuru where the amount of money -- it varies from municipality to municipality -- that goes into the meal per child is higher than the average in Finland.
In Tuusula, Lohja, and Akaa and Helsinki, 42 percent of respondents also said that they don’t school lunches every day.
"These figures are worrisome," says Marjaana Manninen from the Finnish National Agency for Education.
Food for thought
"The purpose of a free meal at school is to ensure students have the energy to make it through the school day and learn better. If a student doesn’t eat, then they are restless during the afternoon , and they doesn’t necessary focus on reaching the educational goals that can be reached by eating a proper meal. In the end it affects educational performance and overall wellbeing," says Manninen.
Finland launched the taxpayer-funded free school meal concept in 1948, exactly 70 years ago. Despite the anniversary, school food doesn’t always appeal to students.
"Students say that one of the most important reasons that they don’t like school food because of the taste, or because they’re not hungry," say researcher Susanna Raulio from THL.
Peer pressure is also a significant factor in deciding whether or not to eat school meals, especially among older students.
If there’s a grocery store or a fast food restaurant near the school, then a group may prefer to head there for lunch -- even if they’re not supposed to leave the school grounds during the school day.
School lunch is a lesson too
The Ministry of Education views school lunches as part of the education system.
"School lunches are about learning about food and eating together," says Manninen.
The Ministry is unhappy with the current situation and has set a goal of having all students partake of the school lunch by 2020. One option it is considering to reach this goal is to include students in the meal planning.