By: Ville Tikka & Tiina Silvasti, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
It is surprising, how small and occasional attention public catering as a modern food policy practice ensuring food and nutrition security in Finland has attracted. After all, it is estimated that one in three Finns of working age belongs to the clientele of public or subsidized catering and, when explored from the life course perspective, everyone in Finland enjoys public meals in some phase of her/his life.
It is estimated that a third of the Finnish population use public catering services on a daily basis: Coverage of free school lunch is 100 per cent in the age group of 7-16 years and approximately half of the children below the age of seven eat for free – or to be precise, at taxpayers’ expense – in day care, kindergarten or preschool. Also upper secondary schools and vocational institutions serve free school lunches.
Furthermore, tens of thousands of students, servicemen and -women, inmates of institutions, clients of care homes and sheltered accommodations, and, for example, prisoners are daily provided by free or heavily subsidized meals. Approximately half of the working population has access to more or less subsidized lunch in on-site and off-site canteens and restaurants, and roughly a half of them utilize these services.
But in addition to the “access” point-of-view, how do public catering practices address the four key elements of food security; i) physical availability of food, ii) economic and physical access to food, iii) food utilization, and iv) stability of the other three dimensions over time?
Availability: Public catering intersects with production and trade through procurement. The recently updated legislature concerning procurements should enable caterers to prefer quality over price, but this remains to be seen in practice. Through procurements public catering can tentatively affect the sustainability of the food system by preferring sustainable tender and logistics. In addition, food and nutrition education can be taught in tandem with environment and sustainability education, which might affect the stability of the supply side.
Access: In terms of coverage, public catering is indeed a superb tool in creating FNS. Access to public catering is, however, unequal between various groups, especially within the working population. Food redistribution is an increasingly popular phenomenon, and the eased regulations have led to an increase in donations from retail to food aid and several caterers distribute surplus food either themselves (schools) or through third parties (worksite canteens etc.). The debate on whether or not this creates FNS is ongoing, and the answer is not simple; on the one hand redistribution guarantees access to food for those with smaller incomes, and on the other hand it is highly unstable and in stark contrast with the ideal of universal welfare.
Utilization: As the foundation of modern public catering is in health and nutrition promotion and education, the impact public catering has on utilization can be seen as significant. Food and nutrition education is presented throughout the various public catering practices and the common claim is that the guidelines and recommendations are inevitably transferred to the homes also.
There is an increase of discord within the field of nutrition recommendations, stemming from self-appointed specialists and discussion forums, and it remains to be seen how much this affects the public health in general. In addition, the growing number of diets poses a challenge to the national guidelines, as they in their present state attract criticism from various diet groups. On the other hand, consumer demand creates pressure to plan new kitchen facilities to prepare meals from the beginning by using raw materials, not only to utilize convenience or processed food, which might in the long run affect public catering as a whole.
In the Finnish context, public catering offers an excellent example of the complexity of regime-crossing FNS-systems, as it is a strongly established assemblage of practices on the one hand but, at the same time, weakly understood as a powerful food policy measure. It is fair to say that inclusive good quality public catering is worth to adhere and develop as a powerful instrument in advancing FNS in Europe.