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School Lunches in Sweden - a Wastage or a Winner?

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School lunches in Sweden - a Wastage or a Winner?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish football player, reveals in his recent autobiography that he often came home to an empty fridge. Thus, Zlatan often stayed with a hollow feeling in his stomach, a pain he claims to remember vividly still today. Zlatan's story is not unique in Sweden according to an annual report by Majblommans Riksförbund (2011), which claims that around 50 000 children in Stockholm live in a socio-economically deprived household. These are sad facts and completely at odds with UN's Convention on the rights of the child, which states that children have the right to the provision of adequate nutritious foods (Article 24, 2 c). In the light of this information, could we not all agree that one free school meal a day is paramount for our school children and not a waste of money, as others claim?

After having read these statistics, most of us would probably answer "yes" to this question. Nevertheless, the case is not that clear cut as it might seem. School meals are being served in many countries around the world. However, only Sweden and Finland have stipulated by law that free hot meals are to be served daily to all children in elementary school (Skolmatens Vänner). Additionally, in Sweden, a school meal must also be nutritious, as stipulated in the new school law that took effect in July 2011 (SFS 2010:800 §10). With this in mind, children's right to food will dependent on their guardian and nobody else, setting Sweden and Finland aside. I personally think this should not be the case, as there are compelling reasons underlining the importance of sustaining and supporting the free school lunches in Sweden.

First of all, a hungry child's focus will be on food and not on learning (Imsen, 2006). However, the energy provided by a lunch meal will boost both the thinking skills and the ability to concentrate during lessons, which in turn has a positive effect on the children's performance at school (Lind, 2008). Children, who are not provided any food or food money by their guardian, will not benefit from this energy boost.

Probably very few people would oppose to the claim that children should learn optimally at school. At the same time, having learning in mind, this does not necessarily mean that the school lunch must be free of charge. However, school lunches that are charged for can mean that a minority like Zlatan and his likes would loose their only access to a proper meal a day.

As a matter of fact, according to Folkhälsogruppen m. fl., (1991), for numerous pupils the school lunch is actually their only cooked meal of the day. Many parents, particularly in low-income households, are either too stressed to prepare a meal and turn to ready-made meals instead, or do so because they simply do not have the financial means to provide fresh food and vegetables (Tid, 2004).

A daily free school meal can to some extent reduce the risk of growth inhibition in children, who do not receive adequate nutrients at home during their childhood (Jacobson & Nordlund, 1992). Children and teenagers in their growing phase have a greater energy need to fulfil than others (Johansson, 2004). Ideally, 30% of their daily energy requirement should be provided during lunchtime, i.e. when their actually are at school (Livsmedelsverket, 2007).

By offering a free lunch meal, we could ensure that as many children as possible will have their energy needs fulfilled at the right time and with adequate nutrients. A lunch box can simply not provide this, as we are limited in our choice due to food safety aspects and where and how the food contents can be enjoyed.

The school can also function as an important anchor for encouraging healthy eating habits and a proper meal culture, as the majority of children and teenagers have most of their meals away from home (Livsmedelsverket, 2007). Today's children consume too much saturated fat, sugar and salt as they have too much candy, ice cream, soft drinks, snacks and pastry (ibid). The school can discourage this in favour of proper, nutritious meals and fruits as a snack.

At school, children can be taught the joy of food and a properly prepared meal during lunch. The mealtime also can serve as a time for socialisation and conversation between adults and children.

One might question why school should get involved in this, as it should be the responsibility of parents. However, I believe that children are multifaceted learners who absorb knowledge not only from the class room, but also from the surrounding environment and by observing other adults actions. We parents are only one piece of the big puzzle.

Furthermore, in today's multicultural Sweden, pupils can be taught



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