Finnish children still getting school lunches despite lockdown

By: AFP      Published: 06:28 PM, 26 Mar, 2020
Finnish children still getting school lunches despite lockdown

While most of Finland's schoolchildren are studying at home under coronavirus restrictions, schools are still offering pupils free meals, a practice seen for decades as a cornerstone of Finland's egalitarian society.

Around 200 pupils a day in the capital Helsinki are interrupting their home study to come to school for a free hot meal.

Schools are closed for all pupils aged 10 or older, while under the law they must remain open for younger pupils, even though they are strongly advised to stay home.

Finland's social distancing restrictions are in effect for the school meals. "The children keep at least one metre apart from each other, they wash their hands under the supervision and a maximum of 10 children eat at the same time," Hanna-Kaisa Talvensaari from Helsinki's education department told AFP.

Under the state of emergency imposed by the government to try and curb the coronavirus pandemic, local authorities can decide whether schools may still offer the nation's 850,000 pupils free meals. No data has yet been collected on how many schools are participating nationwide, but the country's local government association told AFP they are not aware of any regions having opted out of the policy.

Safety net since 1948

"School food is a vital part of a child's safety net," poverty expert Liisa Partio from children's charity MLL told AFP. "They know that if the fridge is empty at home during the weekend, there will be food on Monday."

Partio said the current coronavirus restrictions were exacerbating child poverty in Finland, which despite ranking 12th in the world on the UN Human Development Index still has one in 10 children living in low-income households.

The figure rises to a quarter of all children in single-parent families. "Families' food costs are going up, and if at the same time parents' incomes are going down as their work dries up, it causes a big problem," Partio said.

Finland is believed to have been the first country in the world to introduce free school lunches for all pupils, in 1948. The focus on making sure all children are well-nourished is widely seen as having helped Finland's education system achieve some of the world's highest scores in the PISA rankings, which measure reading and problem-solving skills in 15-year-olds.

Officials said statistics on the free lunch programme are not yet available because the policy is so new, but they plan to monitor its effectiveness. "We have received some feedback asking us to organise take-away food," Hanna-Kaisa Talvensaari said.

Finland has recorded more than 900 cases of coronavirus and four deaths, although not all possible infections are being tested and authorities have said the true number could be 30 times higher.