Towards equality, one public meal at a time

school meal in 1913

Children in Helsinki sit down to eat a free school meal in 1913.

Signe Brander, Helsinki City Museum

Children in Helsinki sit down to eat a free school meal in 1913.

What difference does a meal make? Around the Nordic region, millions of meals are served in public institutions each day. Every plateful of food presents an opportunity for progress.

Written by Afton Halloran

Building a nation

Over a hundred years ago, a group of Finnish women began championing school meals. The future, as they knew it, was female. Like many impoverished regions of the world, only the eldest son would enjoy the opportunity of an education. One way of enticing parents to send their girls (and other children in the family) to school was through the provision of free meals. Thanks to this act of courage, Finland is now the country with the longest standing national school meal programme in the world.


Finnish school meal culture has evolved dramatically, shaped by increased prosperity and globalisation. Nowadays, food is an integrated part of education in Finland – a system which has been applauded for being one of the best public education systems in the world. Finns have created a holistic “food sense model” for how to see food and food education as a learning tool that runs through the entire school day. Pupils also have the opportunity to work in school restaurant as a part of their practical training and working life experience. They also participate in development and decision-making processes by acting as school food agents together with their teachers, kitchen personnel and the headmaster.


From porridge to Italian classics to theme weeks, the food that is served in school restaurants (yes, you read restaurant: terminology matters) is a reflection of society's priorities. In 2019, schools are reducing the amount of meat, increasing the locality and seasonality of the food and creating dishes out of undervalued species of fish.


“It’s important that children do not bear the stress that comes with a highly uncertain future. When we include nutritious and climate-friendly meals within the school curricula, we’re creating the new normal. This means that when these kids grow up, they won’t even need to think twice about making the most environmentally and nutritionally sound decisions. It will be an automatic act,” says Sini Garam, Innovative Leader and Manager of the Finnish School Meal Network.


This means that kitchen staff are not alone in their quest to provide the best possible meals to their customers (yet another strategic choice of terminology). They are backed by teachers, legislation, the Finnish National Agency for Education, National Nutrition Council, local farmers and wide range of civil society actors.


What does the future hold for Finnish school meals? For Sini Garam, “a deeply ingrained sense of humility and a critical eye means that Finns will continue to strive to create a better future through food.”


Framing meals within the Sustainable Development Goals

The food chain is directly and indirectly affected by every single one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – from primary production, fishing and drinking water to consumption, climate and health. The SDGs are also embedded within Sweden's national environmental goals, public health goals and the national food strategy, making meals the perfect place to start.


“Public meals have the potential to create a more sustainable food chain and positive and sustainable social development. However, good and sustainable public meals do not exist alone, they require active leadership and competent staff. In Sweden, public meals were put on the agenda by the media in the early 2000s due to negative headlines about the poor quality of the meals. This, and other initiatives, led to a new way of thinking that has resulted in high political ambition and professional chefs working in the kitchens. The proportion of municipalities with their own meal policies has gone from 40% in 2011 to 80% of all municipalities in 2019,” says Anna-Karin Quetel, Project Leader at the National Competence Centre for Meals in Healthcare, Education and Social Services in Sweden.


Today, public kitchens use just over 30% organic ingredients and one third of the country's municipalities calculate the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each meal. At the same time, there is also strong leadership at the municipal level that enables both quality and creativity in the kitchen. Focus has also pivoted from detailed guidelines on menu planning to recommendations promote skills in the kitchen as well as sustainability and quality. This has helped to make public kitchens meaningful and professional places to work.


The level of ambition for public meals in Sweden is high: “Activities that dare to think outside the box and promote individual and human-centered approaches to healthcare and elderly care are needed to challenge outdated institutional approaches. The future of public meals is about reconnecting urban centres and the countryside in order to promote and interact with local farmers, producers and growers,” adds Anna-Karin Quetel.

Innovating public procurement policy

The Icelandic government is putting sustainability and the counteraction of negative environmental and climate impacts in food production and consumption into policy. A recently drafted food procurement policy for the public sector will focus on healthy meals as a good investment for the future. A healthy diet helps prevent against non-communicable diseases for which treatment is now a major part of Iceland’s health expenditure. Iceland’s upcoming procurement policy also draws inspiration from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.


“According to the draft of the upcoming policy, emphasis is made on inter-ministerial collaboration between the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Industries and Innovation, the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Health as well as consultation with food producers and the private sector," says Brynja Laxdal​ of the Ministry of Industries and Innovation.


The policy is intended to promote the increased competitiveness of domestic food producers in public sector procurement and increased interaction between stakeholders. There will also be more emphasis on plant-based diets as well as fish, low-fat dairy products and water instead of sugary drinks. Meat will still have a role to play but in moderation.


Healthy and environmentally-friendly diets go hand-in-hand. With the term sustainable diet gaining traction over recent years, Iceland is ready with a multifaceted plan to make public meals available to more people.

In the public eye

In Denmark, even meals that are not consumed in public institutions are becoming increasingly public affairs. New trends show that the enjoyment of meals is starting to spread into public spaces. The revival of communal eating – and communal food preparation – has led to long tables in restaurants and the establishment of community kitchens.


“Our studies show that fewer and fewer Danes are making food from scratch in the home. This puts more pressure on our meals to be the guarantor of public health. At the same time, we see that communal eating can be used to create strong and cohesive communities in the increasingly fragmented everyday lives of Danes,” says Judith Kyst of Madkulturen, an independent knowledge and culture change institution under the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food.


Communal meals are also becoming a much sought-after experience at festivals all over Denmark, such as at the Heartland Festival or Roskilde Festival. An exciting newcomer to the scene is the festival Avernax, where festival guests will cook and dine together.

So, what difference can just one meal make? The answer is, indeed, quite a lot. The future of public meals in preschools, schools, hospitals and elderly care facilities the Nordic region will continue to reflect societal values, trends and the constant promotion of equality through food.


We would like to thank Sini Garam (Finnish School Meal Network), Anna-Karin Quetel (Swedish National Competence Centre for Meals in Healthcare, Education and Social Services), Judith Kyst/Charlotte Kjeldbjerg Kristensen (Madkulturen) and Brynja Laxdal (Icelandic Ministry of Industries and Innovation) for their contributions to this piece.


This story is a part of a series about the future of New Nordic Food. Follow Afton Halloran, sustainable food systems expert, as she listens to different voices from around the Nordic region.