Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

Having learned so much about school lunchrooms in the US, I started wondering how things are in Finland nowadays. A quick search in Google Scholar resulted in a couple of articles. One of them was about free school meals and food choices, based on empirical data collected in 2003. They only did questionnaires, not measuring plate waste – waste measurement would probably be quite difficult, since food is self-served. Anyways, they found that a large portion of students weren’t following the plate model and weren’t eating a balanced meal.

School meals have been free in Finland on all school levels since the late 1970s. This could be one cause of Finland’s excellence in the PISA survey. However, the problem is the same as in other countries: students don’t eat everything they should be eating. Another challenge is producing a healthy, balanced meal with very little cost (on average, a bit more than 2 euros). This challenges ties into the first problem, since students’ favorite foods are usually not the ones that would be recommended by health promoters. (As this Finnish news article shows.)

It’s interesting how kids – and adults – develop the simple heuristics based on which they select food. Parents and other adults are obviously important role models, but it can also be those simple things like the color or the shape of the package (“I hate blue, not gonna drink from a blue carton!”) that makes the difference. Understanding of nutritional needs and health effects doesn’t come into picture until later, if ever. In any case, force-feeding kids something that they don’t want to eat and taking away their freedom to choose is not going to work. It doesn’t work for adults, either. Psychological reactance. Nudging towards healthier options and making them more appealing is the better route to go, even if it seems slower.

Role models could also tell how you should *not* act. Just be careful that they don't backfire. (Poster from the great Demotivators collection.)

On a not food-related note, I stumbled upon LEGO Learning Institute’s paper about optimal learning in school. They say that Finland and Denmark could combine the best of both systems – Finland knows how to teach kids to read and do math (regardless their socioeconomic background), but Denmark is better in fostering collaboration and well-being at school. It’s true that the emphasis in school curriculum has been more on the learning and less on the doing together, although I hope that today’s teaching methods are starting to emphasize the latter. That seems to be at least partially the case based on what I’ve heard from my sister (she’s studying to become a teacher, and a great one she’ll be!)

Finally, in the words of Michael Pollan: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. It’s sort of the quote from Arvo Ylppö, “Everything within reason”. The problem with this advice is that people are not that reasonable.

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