In Sweden, national efforts to provide free schools meals started in the early 20th century, and comprised the majority of schoolchildren since the 1970s. All children in the ages 7-16 and to most students ages 16-19 are offered school meals on a daily basis.
In Sweden, the provision of free school meals is required by law. School meals are regulated by the Education Act stating that all primary school children (age 6–16 years) are entitled to free and nutritious school meals, regardless of parental income or school form (2). In 2011, an amendment of the law has stipulated that school meals must be rich in nutrients and hence equal a third of the recommended daily intake of energy and nutrients (1). The Swedish National Food Agency (NFA) has issued recommendations for school kitchens including guidance on servings, a healthy food environment and active involvement of students (4). Most preschools and secondary schools follow the same guidelines (7). The Swedish dietary guidelines are based on the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR), which have been updated every eight years since 1980 and serve Nordic countries as a basis for the adaptation of national recommendations. The NNR provide reference values for nutrient intake which, according to current scientific knowledge, promote the optimal development and body function and which reduce the risk of diet-related diseases (5, 7).
Around 260 million school meals are served annually in Sweden (1). Average prices are around 616 EUR per year and child (6,600 SEK) and cover the cost of ingredients, personnel and transportation. The cost of ingredients in an average meal is just over one EUR (SEK 10-14). The 290 municipalities are responsible for the delivery of many services, including education and preparation of school meals, and they can also provide school meals with the support of private service providers from the region. Schools either have their own school kitchens, in which the food is prepared on site or in centralized kitchens and delivered to each school, warm or cooled for later heating. The meal consists of a warm main course, a salad buffet, bread including spreadable fat and a drink (milk or water) (4). A vegetarian option is also widely available. The students may serve themselves at the buffets. Teachers usually eat together with the children, and ideal teach about food and health. This well-established though not official policy is referred to as “pedagogic lunch” (7).
Evaluation from a holistic perspective
The national guidelines for school meals stipulate that school lunches are to be part of education (1). The quality assurance is in the hands of the schools and municipalities. The nutritional content and other aspects of school meals are evaluated from a holistic perspective. Swedish primary schools and municipalities use a free, web-based instrument named SkolmatSverige (School Food Sweden) to assess a total of six areas affecting the overall meal quality: choice, nutritional quality, safe food, meal service and pedagogy, sustainable food, organisation and policy. It is intended to enable schools and municipalities to review, document and improve the quality of school meals in accordance with the guidelines for school meals. The tool was developed by various scientific institutes with the participation of, among others, the Swedish health authorities and it is free from commercial influences. Approximately half of all of Sweden's approximately 4,800 elementary schools and six out of ten municipalities have joined the tool since it started in 2012. It is stated that schools using the tool were able to significantly improve both the nutritional quality of the meals and the aspects of service and the pedagogic lunch and environmental impact. (7) The latter indicates that contributions are made through conscious choice and reduced food waste. The “meal model” shows a summarised version (1).
Substantial long-term benefits
Researchers studied the long-term impact of a policy-driven change in childhood nutrition. For this purpose, they evaluate a program that rolled out nutritious school lunches free of charge to all pupils in Swedish primary schools between 1959 and 1969 (265 municipalities). They estimated the impact of the program on children’s economic, educational, and health outcomes throughout life. The results show that the school lunch program generated substantial long-term benefits, where pupils exposed to the program during their entire primary school period have 3 % higher lifetime income. The effect was greater for pupils that were exposed at earlier ages and for pupils from poor households, suggesting that the program reduced socioeconomic inequalities in adulthood. Exposure to the program also had substantial effects on educational attainment and health. (8)
- Swedish Food Agency 2020: School lunches.
- Lucas PJ, Patterson E, Sacks G, Billich N, Evans CEL: Preschool and School Meal Policies: An Overview of WhatWe Know about Regulation, Implementation, and Impact on Diet in the UK, Sweden, and Australia. Nutrients (2017).
- European Commission 2015: School food policy country factsheet Sweden
- Emma Patterson, Liselotte Schäfer Elinder: (2014) Improvements in school meal quality in Sweden after the introduction of new legislation—a 2-year follow-up, European Journal of Public Health, Volume 25, Issue 4, August 2015, Pages 655–660
- The Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers 2014: Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – a work in progress
- Swedish Food Agency 2018: Nordic Nutrition Recommendations
- SkolmatSverige 2022
- Petter Lundborg, Dan-Olof Rooth, Jesper Alex-Petersen, Long-Term Effects of Childhood Nutrition: Evidence from a School Lunch Reform, The Review of Economic Studies, Volume 89, Issue 2, March 2022, Pages 876–908, https://doi.org/10.1093/restud/rdab028