FAST-FIN-1 Finnish Institutions Papers

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 20th century.

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, 88).

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 curriculum.

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 (Seppänen4).

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 restaurants6 (Sillanpää 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 93-94).

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 account.

School menus, week 1, group 1 (calendar weeks 2, 9, 15, 21)







  Basic menu

Minced meat sauce (M,L)
Pasta or potatoes

Fish triangles (M,L,G)
Lemon sauce (M,L)
Boiled or mashed potatoes (LL,G)
Grated carrot

Moussaka (LL,P) / Minced meat
and mashed potato casserole (LL,G,P)

Pea soup (M,L,G,B)
Bread 11
Fresh vegetable

Chicken fricassee (M,L) / Turkey
in orange sauce (M,L)
Vegetarian menu

Soya and vegetable sauce (M,L,G)
Pasta or potatoes

Veggie burger (M,L)
Lemon sauce (M,L)
Boiled or mashed potatoes (LL,G)
Grated carrot

Potato and root vegetable moussaka /
Potato-vegetable casserole (LL,G)

Vegetarian pea soup (M,L,G)
Fresh vegetable

Indian lentil and vegetable casserole (L,G)

    Special diets:
    • 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. 48).

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 (Jäntti 52).

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:

  • 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 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 (Jäntti 57).

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 95).

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).


  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. Translated by Mirva Seppänen.

  4. Based on memories of Kalevi Seppänen, who began going to school in 1946 in eastern Finland.

  5. 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.

  6. For example, pupils’ opinions about the food were surveyed by questionnaires (Sillanpää Kouluruokailu 95).

  7. 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.

  8. 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 ready.

  9. 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).

  10. More rotating school menus of the city of Helsinki.

  11. Fresh bread. Usually only crisp bread is served with the school lunch.

  12. More about National Nutrition Council and Finnish Nutrition Recommendations.

  13. 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 'buttermilk'.

Works Cited

  • 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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Last Updated 22 April 2010