If I had to make only one recommendation to American policymakers about how to improve the state of public education based on what I have observed in Finland it would be this: give every kid a free lunch, every day, no questions asked.
Give each kid one hot, nutritious meal regardless of family income level, body size, smart phone ownership, home neighborhood, GPA, BMI, school size, shoe size, you name it.
Yes, all of them.
Yes, even the older kids.
Yes, the kindergartners.
All… of… them.
Finnish school lunches are hot, well-balanced, and include milk and bread. While many Finns might remind you that “free” is an exaggeration as the true cost of the school lunches come from the taxes paid into the larger social welfare system, for all intents and purposes, kids do not have to pay for lunch at school. Parents do not have to fill out any paperwork to prove that they cannot afford to pay for any or all of their kid’s lunch at school. They can trust that their kid will get one good meal at school. All primary school kids line up, wash their hands on the way into the cafeteria, grab a tray and plate, pour their milk, and get served their lunch. Secondary school students, both lower and upper, serve themselves from the line.
Yes, all of them.
At primary schools many students eat with their teachers and peers fostering a sense of community and providing opportunities to practice informal social skills as well as manners. At secondary schools they have the freedom to sit apart from their teachers. Both the sense of individual responsibility and responsibility toward the collective good are fostered by the communal meal in which students are strongly encouraged to eat everything they take so as to not waste as well as clean up after themselves so as to not make anyone else’s job harder. It works. Students of all ages eat their lunch, then clean up after themselves systematically and efficiently. No one shirks her duty. Not much food gets wasted.
Today I ate lunch with several nine-year-olds and Marja, their teacher, a 30-year veteran of the profession, who frequently jumped up to check in with the rest of her students at neighboring tables reminding them to finish their fish soup, sliced apples, rye bread, and milk. They all obliged, save for one or two who left just a morsel of fish in their bowls or an apple rind, perhaps not quite as digestible as they would have liked, on their plates. Sometimes kids have to learn to take less. Sometimes they have to learn to try new things. Gluten-free and lactose-free options exist for those who need them. Marja, like many other Finnish teachers I have met, exuded great pride when she reminded me that Finland has been able to provide such lunches to students for more than 70 years.
The lunch encourages personal health and wellness and reduces the likelihood that students are snacking on sugary or salty treats surreptitiously from their backpacks during class. In fact vending machines that sell such treats are nonexistent in the Finnish schools that I have visited. Childhood obesity is not a public crisis. A nutritious lunch is better for learning and better for the brain. It reduces irritability and enhances engagement. The decision about whether to eat at school, bring lunch from home, go out to lunch, or lay low until lunch is over because you have no money to buy lunch is a non-issue. Parents are not compelled to spend their hard-earned money on cheap processed food for a child’s bag lunch because it is all they can afford. Lunchtime at school in Finland is not a reminder of social inequity and economic disparity. In fact, the meal promotes a more equitable environment overall.
Attempts have been made to improve the nutritional value of American school lunches nationally. Programs are in place to provide free or reduced lunches to over half of our students already. But, if the United States really wants to be more like Finland in terms of public education (and if you follow any news about it, the consensus would be that we really, really do) then the first step is to provide a daily, free, nutritious lunch to each of the more than 50 million public school students in the nation.
Yes, all of them.