[INTERVIEW] No lunch left behind in Finnish school system, even during Covid

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[INTERVIEW] No lunch left behind in Finnish school system, even during Covid

Pekka Metso, ambassador of Finland to Korea, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the diplomatic residence in Seoul on Jan. 4. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Pekka Metso, ambassador of Finland to Korea, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the diplomatic residence in Seoul on Jan. 4. [PARK SANG-MOON]

As schools shuttered classrooms according to the waves of Covid-19 infections over the past two years, class hours were not the only things lost, said Pekka Metso, the Finnish ambassador to Korea.
“The fact that some of the young students who could not go to school were missing their meals was very alarming,” said Metso, speaking at the Finnish residence in Seoul on Jan. 4. “For some students of difficult situations at home and such, schools provided them more than a place to learn — they provided a type of social protection. The Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts have made it clear all around the world that we need joint action.”
When Finland closed its schools from March to April in 2020 to prevent the spread of Covid-19, some local governments in the Nordic nation took up the task of delivering school meals to students' homes, trying to reach some of the most vulnerable families.
The Finnish government, which has been providing free school meals since the initiative was born in the aftermath of World War II and the country to do so the longest, decided to bring the issue to attention at the United Nations last November, knowing that the pandemic and school closures were a global problem.
“As many as 370 million school children worldwide lost access to their school meals in the height of the pandemic,” Metso said. “Of these, around 235 million were surveyed to be based in Asia and Latin America, 72 million in Africa and the Middle East and 63 million in Europe and North America.”
In response to a request from the African Union earlier in 2021, the UN launched the School Meals Coalition in November, led by Finland and France and joined by some 60 nations, as well as civic groups and corporations. They aim to ensure every child in the world by 2030 gets nutritious school meals.
Korea is not a member yet.
“Strong education, to some Koreans, means the world — the whole country stops when there is the national exam [for college admissions], for instance,” he said. “School meals are part of providing equal opportunities for all students.”
Seoul began providing free meals at elementary schools in 2011 and expanded the program to include all grades across middle and high schools last year. Other localities such as Gangwon and Incheon have also been running free lunches for all grades for years.
But these welfare programs didn't give the country and its residents immunity against the unrelenting waves of the pandemic.
The country delayed the opening of its school year by a month in March 2020. The first ones to start their semester were high school seniors, who did so on April 9, and even then the classes were held virtually.
The shutdowns affected the students, especially those who had relied on the school meals as their primary meal of the day.
Students registered for the Seoul city government’s meal voucher cards, which can be used to pay for meals across restaurants in the city, nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, reaching around 3.78 million.
To hear more about how Finland and Korea could work together for the global initiative to ensure no student goes hungry during the pandemic, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Ambassador Metso. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
An example of a typical school meal in Finland. [VRN]

An example of a typical school meal in Finland. [VRN]

Tell us more about the Finnish experience with free school meals. How did it begin, and where is it now?
School meals have for a long time meant a lot to the Finnish society. It began in the 1940s to address the post-war poverty and malnutrition, and we placed a law in 1948 to put the program into force nationwide. It was a very important factor that facilitated children’s equal access to education and improved their cognitive development. We strongly feel that the school meal system has become an integral part of the Finnish education’s success story. Nowadays, all students from pre-primary to upper-secondary schools are entitled to meals at schools.
Would you say there is a Finnish model of school meals that is exportable?
Over the years, we have collected a wide database of information on the nutrition content of 4,000 different types of food and 55 nutrition factors of food used in Finland, and this is something that we are very happy to share with other countries. The idea is that 30 percent of the daily need of energy for the students would come through these school meals.

We are also working on digital innovations that support the planning of healthy and sustainable meals and assist in the reduction of labor costs and food waste.  
Why do you think this issue is more important than ever as the world continues to weather the effects of the pandemic?
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted to leaders around the world that schools are more than a place to learn; that it some cases, they provide a safe place for the students. When these schools shut down, some 370 million students were missing their meals, many of whom rely on these meals as their primary meal of the day. This could have an impact for generations to come, if we don’t act quickly. Some countries were more fragile than the others and now there is a huge need to support them to safely reopen schools and build back better with more resilient education systems.
Korea is not yet a member to the School Meals Coalition. Has there been any communication lately between Finland and Korea on the matter?
The coalition has invited all countries to join. It is my understanding that Korea has its own story on school food programs. When I visited Nami Island, I saw on the menu [of a restaurant] something called “school lunch.” Someone explained to me that the concept behind the dish stems from decades ago, when Koreans brought their lunches to school in [tin] boxes, and how eggs, if the families could afford them, and other ingredients would make it into the box. But because the boxes would be shaken as they were carried to school, the food packed inside would all get mixed up, and that is why they look the way they do. Korea also experienced post-war difficulties, just as Finland did, so it must have its own experiences in ensuring students were well-fed at schools, and based on these experiences, I think Korea can be a good example in Asia when we try to address this global issue.
A student eating the school lunch in Finland. [RIITTA SUPPERI/TEAM FINLAND]

A student eating the school lunch in Finland. [RIITTA SUPPERI/TEAM FINLAND]

Are there plans at the coalition to address the situation in North Korea, which has reported the worst famine in years?
I have not seen anything about [such plans]. But all the school meal programs are part of the humanitarian assistance. On the part of Finland, we have a Finnish [nongovernmental organization] which has been approved by the UN sanctions committee for a school meal project for North Korea. But after all the humanitarian aid [into the North] has been stopped, they have not been able to fulfill [their mission].
How do you think Korea and Finland can work together on school meal programs?
We could make connections [for Korean schools] with the Finnish companies to gain tested and scalable tools and digital solutions for planning nutritious and ecological school meal systems. It would also be very interesting for us to see how the school meals are planned and regulated in Korea.
It’s been one and a half years since you were posted to Korea. How would you sum up your experiences?
It’s been a big learning process. Korea has amazing nature, which I was not familiar with, and the nation has spirituality that I feel drawn to. I also feel very strongly connected with Koreans — there are some linguistic connections [between the people of Finland and Korea], and some people say we have genetic connections as well. There is a built-in understanding between our societies, to an extent in terms of our behaviors also.  

We may be far from each other in distance, but even that is covered easily by flights and we have Finnair flights four times a week [between Incheon and Helsinki], which have never stopped during the pandemic. Soon we will have direct flights from Busan to Helsinki, which will be the first between Busan and a city in Europe.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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