The Development and Social Impact of the Finnish
School Catering System
Mirva Seppänen, Spring 2004 (GB)
A FAST-FIN-1 (TRENPP2C) Finnish Institutions Student Paper
FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere
In Finland all comprehensive school pupils, sixth formers,1 and vocational school students get a free meal
on every school day. A free school lunch is nowadays regarded as a matter
of course. However, this has not always been the case. The year 1948 is
considered to be the starting point of free school catering, although
there has been small-scale catering activity since the beginning of the
This paper provides a historical background for the start of the
universally free school catering system in Finland. The legislation, the
school meals, and the organising of school catering have undergone
substantial changes over the years. These changes are also reviewed, as
well as the present state of the school catering system.
A Need for School Catering
In the beginning of the 20th century it was not very common for Finnish
children to go to school. Often the reason was a lack of food. Many
children also dropped out of school for the same reason (Lintukangas et
al. 68). In the countryside the way to school could be long and tiring and
children needed a lot of energy for it. In order to make it possible for
poor children to attend school, Koulukeittoyhdistys, The “School
Soup Association”, was founded in 1905. The aim of the association was to
improve the nutritional state of pupils (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu
86). To cover the costs the association collected membership fees, took
donations, gave parties, and arranged raffles and collections (Lintukangas
et al. 68).
In 1921 it became compulsory for children between 7 and 13 years of
age to go to school (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 86). At the same time
it was considered to be necessary to organise school catering. The
responsibility fell to the municipalities. However, the municipalities
were not legally obliged to arrange school catering, and even if the state
covered two thirds of the cost of providing food for poor children, some
of them did not attend to their duty (Lintukangas et al. 68).
The food was free of charge only for poor pupils;2 others had to pay for it. Some schools charged 1
mark a day for the food while other schools offered the food for 1.50 per
week. However, instead of paying for the food, many children carried their
own lunch to school, usually buttered bread and milk. But school catering
was appreciated in the families where both parents worked and did not have
the time to cook for their children (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 86,
The organising of school catering varied a great deal in different
parts of Finland. However, a study of the nutritional state of the Finnish
population that was carried out in the 1930s showed that there was a
general need for school catering. The study revealed that 13% of the
primary school pupils were badly nourished, 40% of them were under height
and 33% underweight (Sillanpää Happamasta makeaan 59).
In 1943 an amendment was made to the law of primary school financing.
Within five years all primary school pupils were to get a free meal on
each school day. Thus 1948 is considered to be the year when universally
free school catering started in Finland (Lintukangas et al. 69).
The Legislation Concerning School Catering
The laws and decrees concerning school catering have changed several times
over the years. An account of the historical development of the Finnish
school catering is given in Lintukangas et al. (74-75):3
Each pupil was entitled to a sufficient meal on every school day.
Teachers were obliged to supervise the school lunch by participating in it.
A meal was defined to be sufficient when it fulfilled approximately
one third of a child’s daily food requirements.
All former regulations were repealed when new instructions about school
catering were introduced. These included instructions about the
nutritional value of the meals, special diets, the time and place of
serving lunch, the school’s educational task, and guiding and supervising
the school lunch, among other things.
All comprehensive school pupils and sixth form college students were
entitled to a free, sufficient meal on each school day.
The lunch break was set to be at least 30 minutes both at comprehensive
schools and sixth form colleges. The meal was to fulfil approximately one
third of a comprehensive school pupil’s daily food requirements. The
teachers were obliged to guide and supervise the behaviour of the pupils
on lunch break.
Regulations concerning school catering were reduced. The detailed
instructions issued in 1981 were repealed. Comprehensive school pupils
were entitled to a free, sufficient, appropriately-organised and
supervised meal on every school day. Sixth form college students were
entitled to a free, sufficient meal on each school day. The minimum length
of the lunch break was kept at 30 minutes both at comprehensive schools
and sixth form colleges.
Completely new school legislation was issued on 1 January 1999.
Comprehensive school pupils were entitled to a free, well-balanced,
appropriately-organised and supervised meal on each school day. Full-time
students of sixth form colleges and vocational schools were entitled to a
free meal on those days that their presence is required according to the
Changing Customs and Attitudes
During the Second World War and for some time after it there was a lack of
food in Finland (Sillanpää Happamasta makeaan 84, 88). This was
reflected in attitudes towards food. At schools children were constantly
reminded to be thankful for having food and getting it for free. Leaving
food on one’s plate was out of the question even if a child found the meal
repulsive (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 94). Often the food had to be
finished in detention if it was not eaten during the lunch break. This
kind of forced feeding was given up at most schools by the 1970s
(Sillanpää Happamasta makeaan 183).
In the 1943 amendment pupils were obliged to grow and gather
foodstuffs for school kitchens in their free time (Lintukangas 74). In the
countryside schools often had a vegetable garden. Pupils weeded and
watered the garden during summer, and in autumn they did the harvesting.
Gardening activity was also organised in many cities. Every autumn
children also picked lingonberries for school usage (Sillanpää
Kouluruokailu 89-90). In the countryside the farmers who lived near
schools often provided potatoes for the school kitchens. The whole school
could go to the field to harvest the potatoes for the coming winter
Before the 1970s the school lunch break was not considered to be an
appropriate place for socialising. After saying grace the food had to be
eaten quickly and in total silence. Pupils thanked for the food once they
had finished.5 When the teachers were
obliged to eat with the pupils starting in 1964, they also taught some
basic table manners to them, for example how to use a knife and fork
(Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 91, 93-94).
In the beginning of the 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union, which
had been a major market for Finnish exports, resulted in an economic
recession in Finland. In consequence schools had less money than before
for organising the catering. It was feared that free school catering might
have to be given up. When the economic situation got better in the
mid-1990s, more notice was taken of pupils' preferences at school
Kouluruokailu 95). Furthermore, the lunch break started to be seen
as an opportunity to socialise with others and to rest from school work in
addition to eating (Lintukangas et al. 11).
How School Meals Have Changed
Until the beginning of the 1960s school food consisted mainly of soups,
porridges and thin porridge-type dishes.7
They were cheap and easier to make in large quantities than solid food. In
the beginning of the 20th century few schools had proper facilities for
cooking, and in 1932 less than one third of the schools were properly
equipped. But by 1948, when universally free school catering started, most
schools had kitchens (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 86, 88-90, 93).
The soup was usually either pea soup, cabbage soup, or meat and
vegetable soup. Porridges were made of oats, rye, barley, and semolina.
Rye and lingonberry porridge was also served.8 However, still in the 1940s children brought
bread and milk with them to supplement the school lunch, which was
generally not very filling (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 86, 89, 93).
In the 1960s school meals slowly became more varied. The use of frozen
and processed foods began and more vegetables were served. In the 1970s
the school menu often contained new food products, for example rice and
spaghetti, that were not yet used at pupils’ homes.9 Many children also learned to eat grated root
vegetables, salads and fruits at school (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu
Before the 1990s a person whose diet differed from what most people
ate was thought to be difficult or snobbish. Especially children were
regarded as bad-mannered if they did not eat the same food at school as
the others did. But in the 1990s attitudes started to change due to
increased knowledge about different diets (Sillanpää Happamasta
makeaan 131, 212). In 1997, for example, half of the primary schools
and two thirds of the upper secondary schools in Finland offered a
vegetarian option for their pupils (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 95).
Following is an example of a present day school menu. It is one of the
six rotating menus which were used in different schools of the city of
Helsinki during the spring term of 2004.10
The menu contains ethnic dishes, as well as traditional Finnish food. In
addition to the vegetarian menu, several special diets are also taken into
School menus, week 1, group 1 (calendar weeks 2, 9, 15, 21)
Minced meat sauce (M,L)
Pasta or potatoes
Fish triangles (M,L,G)
Lemon sauce (M,L)
Boiled or mashed potatoes (LL,G)
Moussaka (LL,P) / Minced meat
and mashed potato casserole (LL,G,P)
Pea soup (M,L,G,B)
Chicken fricassee (M,L) / Turkey
in orange sauce (M,L)
Soya and vegetable sauce (M,L,G)
Pasta or potatoes
Veggie burger (M,L)
Lemon sauce (M,L)
Boiled or mashed potatoes (LL,G)
Potato and root vegetable moussaka /
Potato-vegetable casserole (LL,G)
Vegetarian pea soup (M,L,G)
Indian lentil and vegetable casserole (L,G)
M: does not contain milk
L: lactose free, LL: low lactose, no more than 1 g lactose
per 100 g
- G: gluten free
- B: does not contain beef; P: does not contain pork
Current Nutrition Recommendations
The 1999 school legislation guarantees a well-balanced meal for each pupil
on every school day. The school lunch is an important meal. The objective
is to maintain and improve pupils’ well-being and health and to give
energy for school work (Jäntti 51). School catering meets these aims by
following the Finnish Nutrition Recommendations issued by the National
Nutrition Council 12 (Lintukangas et al.
According to the recommendations, the school lunch should fulfil one
third of a child’s daily food requirements. It should be tasty, colourful
and well-balanced (Lintukangas et al. 48). The lunch will be well-balanced
only if all the components of the meal are eaten. It is recommended that a
model serving be displayed on a tray at self-service school restaurants
The above school menu of the city of Helsinki contains all the
components of a well-balanced meal, which according to the National
Nutrition Council are:
A dessert is served with the school lunch if the nutrient content of the
main course is not adequately diverse or if it contains little energy. A
dessert can also be served on festive occasions or for the sake of variety
fresh and cooked vegetables covering half of the plate
- potatoes, rice, or pasta covering one fourth of the plate
- fish or meat covering the last fourth of the plate; or in a
vegetarian diet beans and seeds
- skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, sour milk,13 or water
- bread with vegetable margarine or butter-margarine blend
- berries or fruits as dessert.
A model serving. Source: National
Nutrition Council (PDF document, page 13).
Special diets are served at schools for vegetarians and for medical or
religious reasons. If possible, they should fulfil general nutrition
recommendations and resemble ordinary food as much as possible. If the
diet is served for a medical reason, it should help the pupil to accept
his or her illness and to adopt an appropriate attitude towards his or her
nutritional treatment (Lintukangas et al. 56).
The Continuing Importance of School Catering
Even though the nutritional situation of comprehensive school pupils in
Finland is nowadays very good compared to the results of the study carried
out in the 1930s, school catering still has importance for public health.
The way of living has changed during the past few decades. Nowadays both
parents often work, and family members do not eat meals at the same time
anymore. For many children the school lunch may be the only warm meal they
get during the day (Jäntti 50).
At school children are also encouraged to adopt healthy eating habits.
Pupils have a daily opportunity to practice how to compose a nutritionally
well-balanced meal at the school restaurant (Lintukangas et al. 12).
However, some pupils do not eat all the components of the meal, or they do
not eat at school at all. Nowadays schools are trying to find a better
means to get pupils to enjoy their meals (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu
School catering plays an important role in teaching children social
skills, such as consideration for others, good table manners, and how to
have a conversation while having a meal. Classroom lessons seldom give an
opportunity to practise these skills that everyone will need in different
phases of life. School catering can also help preserve Finnish cultural
heritage and pass it on to new generations by serving traditional foods,
as well as familiarise pupils with the customs and eating habits of other
cultures (Lintukangas et al. 13-14).
- The terms that are used in this paper for the Finnish school system
are not exact equivalents to the English counterparts. Comprehensive
school in Finland (peruskoulu in Finnish) consists of primary
school (ala-aste) and upper secondary school (yläaste).
Primary school is for children between 7 and 12 years of age and upper
secondary school for 13 to 15 year olds. Primary school and upper
secondary school constitute compulsory education. After completing
comprehensive school it is possible to continue studying for another three
years at sixth form college (lukio). During the 1970s the school
system was changed to the present form. Before the 70s compulsory
education consisted only of primary school (kansakoulu) that was
for children between 7 and 13 years of age.
- In the 1920s and 1930s the poorest people in Finland did not have
the means to buy enough food. The situation was the worst amongst the
families of small farmers and workmen in remote areas of northern and
eastern Finland (Sillanpää Happamasta makeaan 59).
- Translated by Mirva Seppänen.
- Based on memories of Kalevi Seppänen, who began going to school in
1946 in eastern Finland.
- Table manners were based on a respect for food. To show their
respect people thanked by simply saying "thank you" or "thank you for the
food" after a meal. In some families a prayer was said before leaving the
table (Sillanpää Happamasta makeaan 94, 103). Children in Finland
are still taught to "thank for the food" after meals.
- For example, pupils’ opinions about the food were surveyed by
questionnaires (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 95).
- These porridge-type dishes (velli in Finnish) were prepared
as porridges, but less flour, hulled grain, semolina, etc. was used than
for porridges. As result the texture of these dishes was soup-like.
- Rye and lingonberry porridge (ruismarjapuuro in Finnish) is
made by putting lingonberries in water and bringing them to a boil. Sugar
and rye flour are then added, and the porridge is left to simmer until
- Until the 1960s the staple diet of the Finnish population
consisted of grain products, meat, fish, and vegetables that were grown in
Finland. Cabbage, potatoes, carrots, beetroots, turnips, swedes, peas, and
onions were nearly always cooked (rather being served fresh in salads or
as grated preparations). The consumption of sugar, meat, and milk products
grew in the 1950s. People who had experienced food shortages in the 1940s
valued white flour, fatty meat, butter, and cream, as these products had
been difficult to get during the Second World War. Vegetables were often
regarded as the food of poor people. The potential health hazards of such
a diet were not yet known in the 1950s. In the beginning of the 1960s the
consumption of vegetables and fruits started to grow rapidly, due to
better nutritional education and imports that brought a greater selection
of vegetables and fruits to the shops (Sillanpää Happamasta makeaan
58, 61, 64, 106, 125, 141, 144).
- More rotating school
menus of the city of Helsinki.
- Fresh bread. Usually only crisp bread is served with the school
- More about National
Nutrition Council and Finnish Nutrition Recommendations.
- Culturing has been a traditional method for keeping milk drinkable
for longer before refrigerators became common in Finnish households.
The Finnish cultured 'sour milk' (piimä) is similar to the English
Jäntti, Annikki. Ravitsemussuositukset peruskoulussa ja lukiossa. Joukkoruokailun ravitsemussuositukset. Ed. Leena Packalen. Helsinki: Valtion painatuskeskus, 1992. 50-71.
Lintukangas, Seija, Maisa Manner, Annikki Mikkola-Montonen, Eira Mäkinen and Raija Partanen. Kouluruokailu: Terveyttä ja tapoja. Helsinki: Hakapaino Oy, 1999.
National Nutrition Council. Finnish Nutrition Recommendations, 1999. The plate model, page 13 (PDF document). Viewed 15 April 2004.
School menus. City of Helsinki Education Department. 22 December 2003. Viewed 15 April 2004.
Seppänen, Kalevi. Personal interview. 3 May 2004.
Sillanpää, Merja. Happamasta makeaan: Suomalaisen ruoka- ja tapakulttuurin kehitys. Jyväskylä: Gummerus Kirjapaino Oy, 1999.
- - -. Kouluruokailu lapsuuden ruokamuistona. Ruisleivästä pestoon: Näkökulmia muuttuvaan ruokakulttuuriin. Ed. Jutta Joutseno and Ulla Kurko. Porvoo: WS Bookwell Oy, 2003. 84-97.
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