Children in Helsinki have enjoyed free school meals for 80 years

Helsinki offered free school meals five years earlier than the rest of Finland. In the past, school lunch consisted of porridges and gruels. Today, the selection is more varied, nutritious and responsible than before. Fish fingers and spinach pancakes are hits year after year.

Everyone has memories of school food, which shows how important it is. It is easier to study and do well in school on a full stomach.

Unlike elsewhere in the world, Finnish school meals have a long history. A law on the provision of school meals was enacted in 1943, and it was the first of its kind in the world. Helsinki has been providing free meals to schoolchildren for as many as 80 years. Other Finnish municipalities adopted the free school meal system after a five-year transition period.

Even today, every pre-primary and comprehensive school pupil and general upper secondary and vocational school student in Finland is entitled to a free school meal.

“What is unique about the Finnish system is that school meals are part of the curriculum. They have both an educational role and a role in promoting learning and well-being. Free school meals that are offered to every student also increase equality,” says Marjaana Manninen, Counsellor of Education at the Finnish National Agency for Education.

The quality of school meals has always been the top priority

School meals have developed enormously over the decades.

The first central kitchen in Helsinki was located at the building that currently houses the City Hall. The food production unit moved to larger premises in Vantaa in the 1970s. Today, the city orders its food services from Palvelukeskus Helsinki, the city’s own municipal enterprise. In addition, some of the food services are purchased from other service providers, and some schools still have their own kitchens.

The history is well known to retired food service manager Airi Rintamäki, who worked for nearly 40 years with school meals in various positions at the City of Helsinki. When Helsinki adopted the purchaser-provider model in 2003, Rintamäki became a purchaser after her previous role as provider. The competitive tendering of food services played a key role, but the quality of the food was not and never will be compromised. The quality, quantity and content of the food must meet strictly defined objectives.

“School meals must be tasty, nutritious, ethical and even carbon neutral. For a long time, schools in Helsinki have served two lunch options, one of which is always vegetarian. The attractiveness of fresh vegetables has also been increased by serving salad separately for more than ten years,” says Rintamäki.

From porridge to chicken legs – economic trends affect school meals

In the early days, all school meals were eaten with a spoon – porridges, gruels and soups. Milk was served in 20 ml brown bottles. Rintamäki still remembers how good the buttered school crispbread tasted.

Forks and knives were not needed in schools until 1968, when dishes such as potatoes with sauce, casseroles and meatballs appeared on the menu. Salads were made from beetroot and cabbage, and pieces of root vegetables were also served. New items on the menu in the 1970s included liver patties, pieces of fish and chicken fricassee served with blackcurrant jam or pumpkin pickles.

Spices were first used in the 1980s. And food allergies became more common. In addition to spice and fish allergies, lactose intolerance and coeliac disease became more common. The kitchens started to take into account special diets.

“The first Italian-style pasta dish was a spaghetti meat dish that I developed. In the 1990s, the meals became more international and seasoned. The economic upswing of the late 1980s was reflected in school food; for example, in the new dish of chicken legs, which were removed from the menu when the recession started in the 1990s.

The goals are only met if students are satisfied with the food

The selection became more varied when the food industry started to produce pre-processed raw ingredients for large-scale kitchens in the 1990s. Serving lines became more common: everyone could take as much food as they wanted. The Finnish school lunch has also been progressive: it was possible to get vegan food already in the early 2000s.

Today, restaurant committees in schools increase the responsible participation of pupils. There are even smiley feedback terminals. Schools organise school meal nights for parents, allowing them to get acquainted with today’s school meals. School food has been offered to municipal councillors and presented, for example, at Helsinki Design Week. Students have also been invited to cook school food together with Palvelukeskus Helsinki’s product development team in the Education Week workshops.

Ethics and reducing food waste entered the picture in the 2010s. The city’s current goal of carbon neutrality also applies to school meals. The amount of red meat and dairy products has been halved and well ahead of the target schedule, and the goal of reducing food waste is actively communicated to students. Ethics are also reflected in purchasing.

“Approximately 90 per cent of the raw materials are from domestic origin, and we also aim to utilise seasonal products. We use fish from Finnish lakes and the Baltic Sea and plant-based proteins, such as Härkis, which is made from fava beans. Food services change with time, and our product development team follows trends. On the other hand, tasty and familiar basic dishes, such as fish sticks, macaroni casserole and spinach pancakes, remain on the menu year after year, alongside newer favourites, such as curries and vegetable tortillas with Quorn sauce. Today, pupils are also highly aware of, for example, climate goals,” says Aulikki Johansson, Head of Unit at Palvelukeskus Helsinki.

Schools organise food themed and special food weeks and celebrate holidays by serving seasonal desserts. They are invariably popular in schools.

“The thematic food weeks offer everyone an equal opportunity to taste food from different food cultures, regardless of how they typically eat at home. In previous years, the week’s menu has consisted of Italian, African, American and Nordic cuisine, for example. Next spring, the food week will feature Mediterranean flavours,” Johansson reveals.

School lunch is a social innovation

According to Manninen, Counsellor of Education, school meals support learning, well-being and health, and teach table manners, a sustainable lifestyle and time management. At the same time, the pupils learn about Finnish food culture, which is increasingly diverse today thanks to cultural influences.

“This is a social innovation in Finland. School meals are economically, environmentally, socially and culturally sustainable. Most importantly, school meals should taste good, be healthy and nutritionally balanced, and provide enough energy for the day.

Lunch for tens of thousands of students

  • The act on free meals for schoolchildren entered into force in 1943. Helsinki started implementing the act right away, followed by the rest of Finland in 1948.
  • Palvelukeskus Helsinki prepares a school lunch every weekday for approximately 44,000 students in 140 schools in Helsinki.
  • The school lunch is prepared according to the plate model, and it provides about one-third of a child’s daily nutritional needs.
  • The price of one school lunch in Helsinki is approximately EUR 2.50.
  • Schools offer two hot lunch options every day, at least one of which is vegetarian.
  • The six-week rotating menus offer plenty of vegetarian options (65%), along with meat (22%) and fish (13%) dishes.
  • Students can share their opinions on the tastiness of school food in many ways, such as through food juries and quick feedback devices circulating in schools. An extensive opinion poll is also carried out in schools every year, with questions on, for example, the students’ favourite foods.

Top 5 favourite foods

  • Fish fingers
  • Spinach pancakes
  • Quorn and vegetable tortillas
  • Broiler curry
  • Sausage sauce