Lessons From Abroad: Finnish Free School Meals

By Jocelyn Levy | 2nd November 2020 | 8 min read

With the Labour Party touting the idea of free school meals for all primary school children ahead of the UK’s snap General Election, now’s as good a time as any to take a closer look at a country that actually does it already. In 1948, Finland became the first country to provide free school meals to all primary school children, and it still does to this day. Why does Finland choose to do it and is it affordable?

he Finnish approach to free school meals

In the UK, we already have the Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) programme. The Finnish system goes further and serves free school meals from the age of 6, when children start pre-primary education and then throughout what is called basic education. Depending on when a child starts attending school, that’s about nine years of free education with free school meals the whole way. All of which means some 900,000 students receive a free school meal every day in Finland.

Like in the UK too, school food is held up to certain nutritional standards, issued in this case by the National Nutritional Council of Finland. The National Board of Education believes that hot nutritious meals can be the basis for success in education. In a report about free school meals, entitled “investment in learning”, it said that free school meals helped to:

“maintain and improve pupils’ health and well-being and to give them energy for their school work.”

Funding a national free school meal programme

The root of the policy therefore is the idea of an investment in learning; but how much investment does it really take to provide free school meals?

In all the major cities, which benefit from larger economies of scale, free school meals cost schools less than €3 a day per pupil. Not bad, especially when you consider the estimates include the cost of raw materials, transport, and preparation combined.

In more rural areas, unsurprisingly cost can be considerably higher. In Ouumala, the cost rises to some €8.26 (that does include an additional snack for later in the day). The rural area of Tyrnävä however, has managed to keep the price down by locally sourcing its food as much as possible. It’s only €1.96 per pupil in the area. Local sourcing of school food ingredients is something we’ve looked at before as possibly the next big development in school food.

Labour Inspiration?

Overall though, it seems as if Finland’s program is pretty affordable. And it certainly seems to be worth the investment. Finland continuously scores highly in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessments) assessments. Of course, there are a lot of factors in that beyond just school food.

There’s no doubt Finland was already an inspiration for the UIFSM in the UK when the Lib Dems were in coalition, but it looks like they could be inspiration again for Labour and its proposed policy. We are big believers, here at FasTrak, that good healthy food can make a positive contribution to the education of children and their general well-being. If free school meals can help achieve that, it’s a policy worth serious consideration.

Related links & news stories

YLE: At Finnish schools, there is such a thing as a free lunch – but how much does it really cost?