Children across Europe must receive at least one nutritious school meal a day if governments want to tackle rising obesity rates, prevent chronic illnesses and reduce social inequalities, according to a coalition of experts.
With the cost of living crisis now stretching many families on the continent beyond breaking point, members of a four-year EU-funded initiative, focused on healthy eating, say action is urgently needed to ensure all European children can rely on at least one healthy meal every day.
Peter Defranceschi, a member of the SchoolFood4Change project, said: “I think that once you say that every child needs to get a healthy school meal every day – whether they’re, rich, poor, in a deprived neighbourhood or wherever – that’s a minimum standard that would make quite a lot of sense in Europe.
“It’s not left or right, or liberal or green, it’s really just a smart thing to do.”
The experts, who say that school meals can be “catalysts for systemic change on a broad societal level”, are working with more than 3,000 schools and 600,000 schoolchildren in 16 cities and regions across 12 EU countries.
The picture varies dramatically around the continent: while countries such as Finland, Estonia and Sweden guarantee children a free meal, it has traditionally been largely absent in others, such as Norway and the Netherlands. The experts want to see free meals made available for all children from poorer backgrounds, who are also more likely to have missed out on breakfast.
“With Ukraine, food prices went up further, so you’ve had food price inflation and some parents not being able to buy proper food for their kids or to pay for their food at school,” said Defranceschi, who also leads the Global CityFood Program at the local governments for sustainability (ICLEI) network.
“Apart from that, there are many kids going to school without breakfast. If the school doesn’t serve any food, then sometimes they just sit there without having a proper meal, which makes it difficult for them to concentrate.”
Manuel Franco, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Alcalá near Madrid and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who serves as one of the project’s advisers, says countries need to stop looking at healthy school meals as an expense and instead view them as a vital tool for tackling future health crises and reducing social inequalities.