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.
Nearly a third of primary school-age children in Europe are either overweight or obese, while almost a quarter of children in the EU are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
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.
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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 ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, a global network of more than 2,500 local and regional governments.
“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.
“The consequences of eating an unhealthy, low-quality diet are to be seen in children and adolescents – and are seen more often in under-served communities and vulnerable populations – and this is a problem in the long-run for our health and for our wellbeing,” he said.
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“We know that in the long run that adults who have a poor diet will develop more diseases like diabetes and cancer. We need to flip the coin and to see that investing €7 a day for every child and adolescent in our populations is money that we’re investing. It’s not an expenditure.”
In almost every country, Franco said, children living in lower-income areas have a lower-quality diet than their more affluent peers. They are also subject to food insecurity because their parents often don’t have enough money to provide them with healthy and nutritious meals on a daily basis.
“Within that picture, children aged one to 18 being able to eat at least once a day in a school or educational centre would be a fantastic tool, or public health intervention, in order to have higher-quality diets,” he said. While free school meals for everyone, rich and poor, would be terrific, he added, “we should always be making sure that those children who need school meals the most are the ones who get them for free”.
While school meals and health policies are matters for individual EU countries, Franco points out that under the European Child Guarantee, adopted two years ago, the bloc’s members are meant to be tackling child poverty and social exclusion and guaranteeing basic rights such as healthcare and education. One of the guarantee’s key objectives is “free education (including school-based activities and at least one healthy meal each school day)”.
Failure to act now, say Franco and his colleagues, will only yield health problems for countless individuals and more expenses for the taxpayers of the future. An online petition urging “a healthy school meal for every child in every school” – which was presented to MEPs in Brussels on Tuesday – has already attracted almost 55,000 signatures.