By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
Annika Unt Widell immigrated to Sweden from Estonia when she was nine years old. A communications consultant by trade, she's been an advocate for better Swedish school lunch for the last 10 years, and was recruited to be spokeswoman for Swedish School Meal Supporters, a group funded by the Swedish Federation of Farmers. Widell is the go-to expert on school lunch in Sweden when journalists come calling. I and a group of reporters from Germany and Russia met with her for an hour in Stockholm, where she was releasing on new book showcasing the results of her travels to school cafeterias around the country, or what she's calling a "school lunch safari."
Sweden, along with Finland, has the only free school lunch program in the developed world. Still, Unt Widell thinks the Swedes can do better. Here are a few of her thoughts.
Q: How did you become an advocate for better school food in Sweden and what is the work you do for Swedish School Food Supporters?
A lot of people all around the country are working for good quality school meals, so I am definitely not alone standing up for pupils’ rights in this matter. I was asked to be the spokesperson for Swedish School Meals Supporters (SSMS), and couldn´t think of a better task. I have a great passion, or almost obsession, for school meals – I really love the fact that any kid here gets a free hot meal every day. It affects the public health and gives every student the possibility to do their best at school. As a dietician, I know the importance of nutritious food, but being also a mother I know for a fact you have to also make the healthy food tasty for it to end up in the children’s tummies.
The Federation of Swedish Farmers, called LRF in Sweden, for the last 10 years has been financing the work of the SSMS. We try to get the attention of the media and the politicians so that school meals are strongly supported and the quality of meals secured all over Sweden. We have an Education Act that says that school lunches must be free and nutritious, but a lot of decisions regarding the quality of the meals are up to each municipality or even individual schools. So the quality can vary and that is why Swedish School Meal Supporters publishes how much municipalities spend per pupil each year, and the extent to which the guidelines set by The National Food Administration are followed.
Q: What were your personal experiences like with Swedish school lunch?
I myself am an immigrant and will never forget the happy experience of my first hot school lunch in third grade. I thought I was in heaven. What a luxury it felt like, and the friendly welcome in the canteen was just as important as the food.
In recent years I have been seeking out good examples of school lunch in Sweden. And I have found a lot of them, tasting them all and getting to know the dedicated chefs.
Wise politicians making the right decisions and allocating sufficient resources, the right knowledge and passion in the school-kitchen, shortening transportation links for food, and an ongoing communication between the kitchen and the pupils – all of that makes good school food.
Q: What are the most extreme examples of Swedish school food that you find unacceptable?
When the pupils won´t eat the lunch for some reason, even though it is free. This is quite rare I would say, but sometimes things go wrong when organizing meals, on delivery, or while cooking, and of course the pupils will notice and protest. School lunch means a lot to them. It just has to be at least OK. Sometimes the kitchen has a budget that is just too small. It is not possible to make good meals out of nothing, even if the kitchen staff tries their best.
Q: How would you describe the level of interest in school food in Sweden? Are parents concerned?
Well, every Swede has an opinion on school food, as the meals are paid forthrough taxes. Parents mostly so, of course. But there is no national parents organization or anything like that. Parents protest locally when school meals are not up to standards. Often I hear from them and try to advise. We have quite a lot of info on our website on how to proceed.
Q: What are the most urgent needs for improving school food in Sweden?
In some municipalities, a bigger budget is urgently needed. Most important are funds to educate kitchen staff and purchase high quality raw materials. Local politicians need to decide on a Dietary Plan that states the intended quality of meals in all schools and pre-schools.
Q: How has the government responded to your advocacy?
We have an ongoing dialogue, I would say. Now there is a book out, good examples of school kitchens, and a national educational program for the staff - two of several projects receiving governmental funding. I feel the matter of school meal quality is high on the agenda, being a part of the national strategy “Sweden – Europe´s new culinary nation”.
Q: How did you identify the examples of excellent school food programs for your book, and what is the secret to their success?
I have had the good fortune during many years now to visit a lot of schools. Also I have a great network of school food lovers all around Sweden who keep me informed. And articles in local media have been helpful in my search.
All these schools have experienced chefs in well equipped kitchens who love to cook really good food – local to some extent, mixing Swedish traditional food with modern international tastes- -and who really appreciate working with children, seeing them as guests at their restaurant.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
I dream of free school meals in every country, rich or poor. It can be very hard also in a rich country, if you are poor, or living in a dysfunctional family. That is why this is a really great idea, (even though I am not directly involved in this, yet):
United Nations Association-Sweden is an umbrella organization supported in around 100 national civil society organizations. It enjoys the support of 7,000 individual members organized in 120 local chapters.
One of the fund-raising campaigns is carried out in cooperation with the World Food Programme School Feeding Program. The idea is to offer poor children free lunch at school, something which has several positive effects for the children themselves as well as for their families, communities and countries. The Swedish school feeding campaign cooperates with well-known Swedish restaurants and the coffee shop Barista Fair Trade Coffee. Both campaigns have enrolled famous Swedish entertainers, media representatives and sport stars as ambassadors.