Schooled in Food
Yes, there is still a place where you can get a free lunch. Believe it or not, Sweden is one of only four or five nations in the world that provides a free meal at school. And thanks to a current culinary revolution in school food, Swedish students are probably eating better than you are.
In Eslöv, in the south of Sweden, Ekenässkolan recently moved their school’s lunch room from the cellar to a renovated, light-filled gymnasium appropriately named Restaurant Fenix. When interviewed about the change, Food Services Manager Johan Grandström said the environment has had a huge impact on student behavior. From their open kitchen Grandström and his staff prepare approximately 1200 portions daily, with menu options like chicken and vegetarian curry, and a turkey omelet.
Chef Michael Bäckman serves a similar lunch at Annerstaskolan in the Stockholm suburb of Huddinge. Students have a choice of a meat or vegetarian dish, as well as a full salad bar with freshly baked bread. While the average school in Sweden today uses just under 20% organic ingredients, Annerstaskolan is currently at almost 30% and aims to increase that number to 50% by 2020.
But it wasn’t always this way. When Bäckman responded to a job advertisement in 2006, a free school lunch consisted entirely of reheated frozen foods furnished by a catering company. The school principal, Björn Grunstein, envisioned a restaurant where the students could eat healthy, well-prepared food made from scratch. He started by hiring Bäckman, the school’s first chef.
“Back then, there were ovens and big stewpots but we didn’t have the equipment to bake,” says Bäckman. “We didn’t even have chef’s knives.”
The long road to a hot meal
It took Bäckman three years to entirely eliminate prepared foods from the menu. “The first six months were tough for the students. They didn’t recognize the food we were serving and the teachers called it ‘grown-up food.’ But over time they became used to it and now the kids ask us for recipes so they can replicate the dishes at home.”
The early years represented a learning curve for the staff, too. Initially a group of part-timers used to warming and serving food, Bäckman cut the staff from seven to four, but gave the remaining staff full-time work and training. “Back then even making patties from ground meat was a big deal. It gave them a sense of pride,” says Bäckman. Not everyone stuck it out. Those who did were able to see the fruits of their labors when Arla, Sweden’s biggest dairy, awarded Annerstaskolan with a golden cow for best school food in 2009.
“Back then even making patties from ground meat was a big deal. It gave them a sense of pride.”
Attracting trained cooks to the industry is one Bäckman’s passions. It was with this in mind that he formed a team of school chefs – the first ever – to compete in the IKA Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany, in 2012. With a fraction of the funding and training opportunities of the teams they were up against, Team School Restaurant Sweden took home a silver.
At the time, Bäckman was criticized that his team didn’t have a female member. “While 95% of those who work in school kitchens are women,” says Bäckman, “my goal was to attract more men to this sector of the industry. I hate to say it, but when more men start cooking in school kitchens, they demand more money and the result is a positive increase in salary and respect for what we’re doing.”
As Chef Bäckman prepares for the next Culinary Olympics, he notes that in the past two years the number of men in school kitchens has increased to 20%. “We don’t have to make a statement anymore,” he says, pointing out that they now have a woman on the team. “But she is on the team because she’s a great cook, not because she’s a woman.”
Recent surveys by the advocacy group, Skolmatens vänner (“Friends of the school lunch”), affirm Bäckman’s statistics. “We are making a lot of progress,” says Annika Unt Widell of Skolmatens vänner. “Today two out of three people working in school kitchens have relevant foodservice training, and that number is increasing every year.”
Unt Widell says she can already see these changes reflected in the language. “Now, when I read about school food in the news, I notice the staff being referred to as cooks instead of ‘cafeteria ladies,’ the cafeteria is referred to as a ‘restaurant’ and the students are called guests. The image of the profession is shifting, and attracting more qualified candidates as a result.”
The foundation of the school food revolution
In Sweden, free school lunch has been legislated since the 1970s, but it has its roots back in the 1930s when a general interest in nutrition spread throughout the country. By 1945 the government decided that school food should be free and that it should contain a third of the day’s dietary requirements. Though local municipalities were not obligated to provide a free meal, they did receive subsidies for doing so – as long as it included something hot like stew along with milk, butter and bread. This early legislation set the groundwork for the future of the free school lunch, which is now available to all students, preschool through high school.
Since July 2011, updated legislation requires that schools vary their lunch options and ensure nutritional value. Today 7 out of 10 municipalities have drawn up their own plans to increase and guarantee the quality of school food. That’s a 70% increase over the last three years. “These plans include goals for food safety and nutrition,” says Annika Unt Widell. ”They also include regulations on how and when lunch should be served, the provision of special foods, food advice, and how teachers can use lunchtime for pedagogical purposes – as well as goals for organic, locally produced and food made from scratch.”
The cost of a free lunch
While price is a concern, and has been going up at an average of .50 ore a year, in 2012 the cost of feeding a child for a year, including food transport and personnel costs, came to 5640 SEK (that’s around 813 USD, or 616 EUR), or somewhere between 9.8 and 11.24 SEK per meal.
At Annerstaskolan, Chef Bäckman found that he was saving the school money by making meals made from scratch. “You can cut back on a lot of waste by just grinding up the excess beef for hamburgers,” he says. But that’s not the only way they were able to trim the fat. Bäckman and his team re-use as many ingredients as possible on subsequent days – a skill that he gleaned from working in restaurants.
The concept of ”the pedagogic lunch” is strong in Sweden. Lunchtime is often regarded as an opportunity for teachers to spend time with students outside the classroom. In Eslöv, where Ekenäs School is located, the local government is heading up a project called, “You learn what you eat,” with the goal of increasing the focus on the learning opportunities presented at mealtimes.
Other schools are taking this a step further, integrating food education into their programming. Recently, students at a school in Älmhult got to tour a farm and meat processing operation. “It’s important to show where our food comes from,” says Sofia Herbertsson, Food Services Manager for the municipality. After the tour the students joined the farmers in grilling up a feast for the entire school.
Starting in the fall of 2014, another one of Bäckman’s pet projects is about to begin at Annerstasskolan. Twenty-four 8th grade students will spend two hours each week in the kitchen with him and a teacher. “Right now we have too many restaurants in Sweden and not enough chefs,” he says. “Our goal is to give these students a foundation in the kitchen so that when they go to high school and then into the workforce, they will be guaranteed a head start.”
Exporting the free school lunch
Annika Unt Widell is hopeful that all of this accumulated knowledge is something that Sweden might be able to share with other countries. “Right now many governments are looking at how to offer good food in their schools,” she says. “Although we don’t have a pre-packaged plan that we can roll out, Sweden does have experience in organizing healthy, cost-effective, hygienic, safe and delicious food for children, as well as the old and sick.”
But perhaps a plan isn’t that far out. Sweden’s foremost research hospital, Karolinska Institute, has an ongoing project that maps and tracks the progress of Swedish school food. Though their questionnaire is in Swedish and the database is limited to Swedish schools, if you want to more or find out how your local school stacks up, you can write to them at: firstname.lastname@example.org