Eating environment more important than food
The school food study was conducted in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland in the 2013–2014 academic year. More than 800 10-year-olds took part in the study which sought to identify possible connections between what pupils eat during the school day and their ability to learn and concentrate. The research project was funded by NordForsk under the Education for Tomorrow programme. This is the first time that a specific study has been conducted on the role of school lunches and school food in the Nordic region.
“This concerns the environment, planning and implementation. And especially the noise level.”
“It has been taken for granted that pupils perform better if they eat a good portion of healthy food. But very little is really known about this,” says project leader Agneta Hörnell, who is a professor at the Department of Food and Nutrition at Umeå University.
In part, Dr Hörnell and her colleagues in Bergen, Reykjavik and Åbo wanted to compare the Nordic countries because they have different systems and traditions. They also sought to find connections between food and learning independent of country.
High noise level and stress
One of the most surprising findings is how little the children eat. A large percentage eat less than planned. This is the case whether they are served a portion of food, as in Iceland; whether they help themselves, as in Finland and Sweden; or whether they bring food from home, as in Norway. Sweden is the only country where the pupils have a salad buffet. Although the selection of food was usually large, a high number of pupils never helped themselves to fruit or vegetables.
The results are still being analysed. One of the researchers’ tasks is to collate data about the nutrient intake of individual pupils.
Why do so many pupils eat so little?
“We have observed that there is a generally high noise level, and there was a lot of commotion and disruption. The pupils found the lunch hour to be stressful, so this may be part of the reason,” says Dr Hörnell.
When the pupils describe a good meal in their own words, they use expressions such as “peace and quiet,” “eat quietly”, “sit, chat and have a nice time” and “eat with friends”.
“There is nothing to suggest that anything is wrong with the food. It is tasty and varied. The homemade lunches also look good for the most part. When asked, the children responded that they thought the food was good, although they did not like everything.”
Main axis of comparison
When the researchers began the study, they hypothesised that different school food schemes could have different impacts on the ability of pupils to concentrate. Now that the researchers are analysing the data, they are shifting their axis of comparison towards the difference between those who eat a little and those who eat a lot.
“We are concerned with finding out how the pupils who eat little are faring; whether they have problems paying attention in class or whether they manage just as well as the pupils who eat a lot,” explains Dr Hörnell, who visited several of the schools herself and spoke with pupils – while eating a nutritious school lunch.
This article was first published in NordForsk Magazine 2015
Text: Bjarne Røsjø
Photo of Agneta Hörnell: NordForsk/Terje Heiestad