Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Finland: The Basics

Finland: The Basics

G’day mates, as my new Aussie friends have taught me :) I hope you are having a fulfilling day! I am writing from my hostel in Brussels, Belgium, an unexpected, yet pleasant, resting spot. See, I was intending to stay in Stockholm until September 26, but I accidentally booked my housing for September 16 … so, I made a spur of the moment decision and come to Brussels.

[The amazing Jubelpark]

I was not the largest fan of Brussels at first, but throughout the week, I’ve seen beautiful scenes and had great conversations to change my perception. My favorite spot is the Jubelpark, a gorgeous park that spans for kilometers. My favorite foodie spot is a patisserie that isn’t on Google Maps - but it has amazing baked goods for a steal. I got a huge croissant for a euro - that simply doesn’t happen in Brussels!

[Well, it's a piece of the amazing croissant ...]

Visiting the Finnish school lunch program may seem like a long time ago, I’ve continually been mulling over the program in my mind. However, before I talked about the program, I think it is important to contextualize the program by talking about Finland’s fast facts, as well as its educational, political, and cultural structure.

Population: the population of Finland is almost 5.5 million people. Seems small, doesn’t it? Well, it is. The population density is so low in Finland, that every citizen could own 23 square miles of the country. This is important to keep in mind because there are more American children in school than the entire population of Finland. There are 50.4 million students in American schools, in comparison to 900,000 students in Finnish schools. Population has multiple potential influences on the school lunch program: the Finnish government can afford to spend more than American government on meals … but meal costs are less expensive in America due to economies of scale. I can’t predict the power of these two phenomena (why I am an anthropology major, not a statistics major), but want to point out the large difference in population.

Political and economic system: The Finnish government is comprised of an Executive branch (a weaker president and stronger Prime Minister), Legislative branch (Parliament, I would argue the most powerful branch), and Judicial branch. The Parliament, called “Eduskunta,” typically has 8-10 parties represented. I mention this (and will make a post about this later) because the Eduskunta is currently debating rescinding several of its most progressive education and social policies - which directly impacts the school lunch program. More about this later. ;)

The Finnish economy is worthy to note, too. One word: taxes. Taxes, taxes, taxes. Take a look at the income tax rate below:

Taxable earned income (euros)
Basic tax amount
Rate within brackets

Some readers are cringing, while the liberal inside of me dances for joy. The Finnish government taxes its citizens at high rates, but these funds are used for free education (K-12 and college) and other public services such as healthcare, childcare, and social net programs. The Finnish national school lunch program is a direct recipient of this tax system, allowing the government to provide every child with free meals in school.

Education in Finland

Inherent educational differences: Without throwing America under the schoolbus (haha, get it?), Finland’s education system outperforms America’s education in nearly all measures. If you have never seen Waiting for Superman, check it out - it’s a jarring documentary that compares the American and Finnish public school systems. But not only is student achievement indicative of a better school system, but Finnish teachers are treated significantly better than American teachers. While teaching is considered a “fallback” career in America (Have you ever heard the quote, “Those who can’t do, teach?” It’s awful.), a Finnish teaching candidate needs a master’s degree to even apply to teach. Furthermore, the job acceptance rate for elementary school educators is less than 10 percent in Finland.


Those are similar rates to American medical and law school acceptances, to investment banking job offers … whereas in America, there are schools that do not have enough teachers on the roster.  Having been in both Finnish and American schools, I can attest to a fundamentally different mindset … it’s hard to describe, but just being present in these two systems feels different. I’ll see if I can articulate this feeling in the future, and will edit this post accordingly.

In my next post, I will discuss the evaluative measures the American and Finnish programs do (or don’t) use :) Thank you all for your patience in waiting for a new post, I’ve been applying for a conference (using this research!) that has taken up a lot of my time. Hopefully I’ll get to present - I’ll let you guys know as soon as I know!

I’ll leave you guys with this picture I took of a menu from Dandoy Waffles in Brussels, Belgium. It made my day. :) I hope something makes your day, too!



Monday, September 19, 2016

Swedish food highlights: Chokladboll and Prinsesstårta

Swedish food highlights: chokladboll and prinsesstårta

Hello everyone! Greetings from Stockholm, Sweden! Are you well today? I was smacked by a dreadful cold over the past week, and am finally starting to feel better. My head is finally feeling normal again - this emoji expresses how much pressure there was in my head over the last few days:
Anyway, if you haven’t recognized my patterns of posting about food highlights, most of the highlighted foods are baked goods or sweets. :) I eat healthily, and also have the rule that I can try a dessert if I have never had it before (assuming it looks appetizing), and if I could not reasonably find it in the US. I feel like it is my duty to try the unknown sweet - you know, sometimes you have to take one for the team! So, here are some of my highlights from Sweden.

Chokladboll, aka Chocolate + coconut heaven

When I first saw this delectable chocolate ball, which is slightly smaller than a baseball, I was in a mad dash to catch a train from Stockholm to Uppsala. However, I was also starving. And, hungry Erin = grumpy Erin. Haha, I wish I were joking.

So, I quickly stopped at a bakery to grab a sandwich, and splurged to purchase a chokladboll (they cost 25 swedish kroner, which is around $3 USD). Then I quickly boarded my train. After a brief moment to decompress, I bit into this chokladboll …

I was surprised by the texture; I expected the texture to be like American fudge, but the ball was more pliable and more moist. It was absolutely delicious. It is made of butter, chocolate, sugar, butter, oats, vanilla, butter, and is usually garnished with coconut or chocolate sprinkles (for all those coconut-haters out there). Instead of being baked, these balls are hand-made and then chilled before serving.

There doesn’t seem to be an extensive history behind chokladbollar, with the exception of a controversial name change in the 1990s. Now, with a more-inclusive name, this dessert is absolutely amazing!


[It is hard to tell in this picture, but the princess cake is dome-shaped.]

When you see Prinsesstårta for the first time, the cake will undoubtedly put a smile on your face. The green color of the marzipan frosting could “theoretically” be off-putting, but it really just brings joy (and hunger) to those who see it in a bakery window.

The cake is made of alternating layers of sponge cake, pastry cream or jam, and a thick layer of whipped cream. The top of the cake is covered by the marzipan topping (marzipan = almonds + sugar) and powdered sugar. The marzipan makes it more cumbersome - and more fun - to eat, because the outside is a little gummy and gooey. Amazing.

Hehe. The cake first came into being in 1948 when Jenny Åkerström published her cookbook, Prinsessornas Kokbok. She taught Prince Carl’s (Duke of Västergötland) daughters, and this cake was their favorite. So, naturally, it became known as “princess cake” in Sweden.

This cake is time-intensive, it takes a lot of time to make the various layers, get the marzipan just right, and assemble it without it toppling over …

Wowza. Hope you enjoyed these pictures like I did - almost as much as the desserts themselves! ;)


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Beginning of the End: Italia

The Beginning of the End … Italia

Hello to you! I hope you are happy, whenever this writing reaches you. If not, perhaps this video will cheer you up ;)

I went to the ABBA museum yesterday (it’s the only museum I can justify paying for!) and IT WAS AMAZING!! Here’s a video of me as the fifth member of ABBA - So I guess the new band’s name is… ABEBA? :D

Back to reality, and my day job. Today is the final installment of the Italian School Lunch Program - hence the name of this blogpost, “The Beginning of the End - Italia.” I am amazed at how quickly this experience is going by, and a little overwhelmed, too. When I first learned I got the Keegan Fellowship, I felt a wave of joy, then gratitude, and then doubt and anxiety. The idea of traveling abroad for a full year alone was nerve-racking. For awhile, I rode an emotional roller coaster of feeling complete self-confidence and empowerment, to feeling fear and hopelessness (“What if” questions are always my least favorite and least-productive questions).

But, I did it, and I am doing it. I am about 15 percent of the way into my fellowship, and am experiencing unprecedented levels of confidence and self-efficacy. Being self-reliant, curious about the unknown, and finding joy in moments of solitude have been incredibly liberating.

*Peaceful sigh*

I digress, onto the politics of the Italian school lunch program.

This post covers the “politics” of the program. I am using “politics” as an umbrella term to cover governmental oversight and the general political processes that I find noteworthy.

1. Complete decentralization allows for regionally-specific laws to be passed efficiently.

In March 2016, a Gallup poll found that only 13 percent of Americans approved of Congress. Over the last year, Congressional approval has fluctuated between 11 and 16 percent, as many Americans are frustrated by the inaction and perpetual impasse in Congress. Very little substantial legislation is passed by Congress since it is so polarized.

In the context of the US National School Lunch Program, passing laws for this program has become increasingly difficult. While passing regulatory laws (aka, nutritional content, where the food comes from) typically receives bipartisan support, the increased funding that is required often creates tension between political parties - aka, the budget is disagreed upon. In essence, it is difficult to pass lunch laws.

In contrast, the Italian school lunch program is decentralized to the point where regional lawmakers pass laws for their regions - there is no federal oversight. For example, Umbria passes laws for the Umbrian canteens, and Rome passes laws for Rome’s canteens. This has two direct results: laws are passed quickly (in comparison to the American program), and laws are more aptly fit to the region.  

Like US regional politics, regions in Italy are politically-distinct; northern Italy tends to be more liberal, while southern Italy tends to be more conservative. Sounds like the US, eh? ;) By having regional laws govern the Italian school lunch program, regional governments are better able to bypass the conflicts that could occur at the federal level.

Further, regional oversight results in passing laws that embody the region’s needs. For example, if Rome needs to reduce the sodium intake and Florence needs to increase the amount of organics in the program, these regional governments will pass laws to address these individual problems. You may think, “Are there really that big of differences between regional school lunch programs?” Oho, having been in Minnesotan and Tennessean/Virginian schools, I can give an emphatic YES. Haha.



2. The situation of the national school lunch program in governmental structure

There is a major difference between the positioning of the US and Italian programs in the larger governmental structure.  In America, the national school lunch program is housed within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA “provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management.” Wow, that’s a lot of things to “provide leadership” for! Cynics like me might say that the USDA gives subsidies to the wrong industries while providing inadequate resources for rural development, nutrition, and scientific research on our foods.

In contrast, the Italian school lunch program is housed in its Department of Education. The Department of Education’s mission is obviously to provide quality education to Italian children - pretty straightforward. Here is where I want to make my point - who “owns” the school lunch program can make a difference in the administration, financing, and success of the program.  All of the regulations, hiring, and organization of the school lunch program stem from either the USDA or the Education Department.

The USDA is filled with organizations and industries that go after the same subsidies - food manufacturers, food producers, and special interest groups are competing against the national school lunch program for funding. Hmmm … who has a lot of lobbying power? Every industry/program except the national school lunch program. This prompts the the question, who is able to advocate for additional funding for the national school lunch program if politically and financially-powerful entities are going after the same cash?

The Department of Education has less competition - all programs in the department are competing for money that ultimately benefits the children. A lack of private industries, as well as the mission of the department means the Italian school lunch program is better situated to receive additional funding and to persevere during tough economic times/budget cuts. Furthermore, I would argue that a department of educators ultimately care for students more than businessmen and scientists. This is not meant to be callous, but to be frank. The placement of the US school lunch program complicates its own welfare and proficiency.

Wow, I am done with Italy! It’s about time, eh? ;) Moving onto Finnish reflections next! Enjoy today, and peace to you all!


PS As a thank you for reading this far in my blog, here is a second video of me dancing with ABEBA!!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Nutrition Fact Labels Continued: Finland

Good evening from Stockholm, Sweden!

As usual, I am amazed by the gorgeous architecture and beautiful scenery. Earlier today, I got to see the changing of the Swedish guard - with a special guest, Peder Fredricson.

[I totally took this picture! If you don't know who Peder is, take a look at what is around his neck.]

Fredricson received the silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics in the equestrian jumping competition. Or, you perhaps know him more famously as the rider who dabbed after his performance:


He was honored earlier this afternoon. Cool moment on the road, eh?

Well, I wish to continue the installment of comparing nutrition facts label from around the world, but I made the sad/awkward realization that EU countries all have the same nutrition facts labels. Hehe, whoops. 

But, I will continue to post as "new" dissimilarities emerge from these labels. Such as, this Finnish label.

A point of confusion: why are serving sizes so confusing in Europe?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I taught a nutrition program at a non-profit last summer. The most difficult concept for my students to grasp was without a doubt serving size. I mean, how does one explain that there is a recommended amount of food - and it is sometimes arbitrarily assigned - that someone should eat? Furthermore, it is incredibly difficult to visualize how much "3/4 cup of oats" or "8 ounces of soda" are!

Even though both labels are for the same bottle of Coca Cola (think, a larger bottle of Coke, not a can), could you see how the label on the left is confusing? Even misleading? I would argue that Coca Cola is hiding how unhealthy it is by increasing the number of servings, making sugar content seem smaller. However, the response to this is common and common-sensical: when children see a bag of chips or can of soda, they often assume that the whole bag or can is one serving. 

However, some nutrition facts labels' serving sizes make sense to me. In America, a serving size for a bread loaf is usually a piece of bread. Or, a candy package will often say, "12 pieces" as a serving size, which sends a clear message to consumers of how many they should eat. But as I have been looking into nutrition facts labels in Finland (and other EU countries), I have been confused and frustrated by their usage of serving sizes. Take a look:

Finnish bread

A typical Finnish loaf of bread is measured in terms of 100 grams. In fact, every European nutrition facts label uses 100 grams as the serving size.

[Click on the picture if necessary, sorry if the writing is small!]

How much is 100 grams of bread? Or, how much is 100 grams of Goody Cao, aka Nesquik?

[Goody Cao was kind enough to also include "10 g" in a serving. But how much is 10 g of powder?]

Without providing context as to how much 100 g of food is, it is extremely difficult to know how much you should or shouldn't eat. I suppose the only option is to look at the number of grams on the box (see the "800 grams" on the Goody Cao label?), divide that by 100, and try to visualize that fraction? But again, you may not want to eat 100 grams of the food to begin with. Could you imagine eating 1/8 of a Nesquik container in one sitting? Oh mommy. 

Perhaps Europeans have an easier time than I in visualizing what 100 g is like, but I have my doubts ...

Hmmm ... perhaps this calls for an experiment? ... *cogs begin churning in Erin's brain*

Alright friends, stay tuned for my last Italian blog post, and the start of the Finnish! (hehe should I Finnish the Italians?)

Erin and the Nesquik Bunny

Friday, September 2, 2016

Wait, Italian school lunches cost HOW MUCH?!

Moi! :) (Hello, in Finnish!)

There was a holiday (of sorts) in Finland last Thursday evening called "Night of the Arts." It was a night of live music, free entrances to all museums and art galleries, and a general evening for Finnish debauchery and fun!

[There were sumo wrestling games, people blowing bubbles - and wow, was downtown Helsinki crowded!]

This holiday also signifies the end of summer in Finland ... which makes me quite sad (and cold). Today's weather: rainy with a high of 14 C, or 57 F. Brrr, get me out of here quickly! Just kidding - I genuinely love Helsinki, it is a gorgeous city with a distinct culture.

[Harbor in Helsinki, back when it was warmer ...]

Anyway, it's time to move onto the economics of the Italian School Lunch program! 

Wait, school lunches cost HOW MUCH?!

As I read articles about Italian school lunches, some of the prices made me gasp. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Italian school lunch programs are more decentralized than US programs, meaning that each district funds its own school lunch program. This results in varying prices throughout the country; in Placenza, a small town that serves 90% locally-sourced meals, a school lunch costs 4.75 euros ($5.30 USD). A meal in Marino costs 3.85 euros. I view this as a drawback to the Italian school lunch program since smaller regions and school districts have lower economies of scale. It costs less per child to provide 100,000 meals than 1,000 meals, so costs will be higher in smaller communities. Furthermore, wealth tends to be concentrated in urban areas, so rural Italian communities have fewer taxpayer dollars and resources to contribute to school lunch. Large cities such as Rome or Florence benefit from having large populations and more resources, and are more readily available to lower the price for families.

[Doesn't the lunch room look so peaceful and proper?]

Depending on the program, the school district subsidizes part of the program and lowers the cost of lunch for all families - such as in Rome, where the cost of the meal is over 5 euros, but families pay a maximum of 2.67 euros per child, per meal. In every program, there are additional subsidies available for families who cannot afford school lunch.

Take Rome, for example. Subsidies are awarded based on a sliding scale, depending on family income. Prices range from 0 to 3 euros. This is somewhat similar in the US, but the US is much simpler; if an American household reaches a threshold for income, a school lunch costs full price, 40 cents, or $0.

I want to break down these costs, though.  In general, Italy spends significantly more money on ingredients than America.* In Rome, the cost for ingredients is 1.5 euros per meal, which is double the amount spent on ingredients in the US (96 cents, or .86 euro). The food director for Rome’s program, Silvana Sari, said that the high cost of ingredients is due to her “high short-term cost, low long-term cost” vision for Italian children’s future. Sari notes that if ingredients are nutritious in a school lunch, then children are more likely to make healthy decisions in the long run.

Financing Italian lunches: High short-term cost, high long-term benefits

Silvana Sari, as well as other Italian food directors, believes that investing larger amounts of “small money” in the school lunch program will result in sizeable decreases in “big money” spent on healthcare in the long run. Her vision has merit.

Obesity and obesity-related healthcare costs
Obesity costs a lot of money worldwide, but especially in the United States healthcare system (surprise). It is estimated that $147 to $210 billion dollars is spent on obesity-related illness and chronic disease every year. Adults affected by obesity spend 42 percent more on direct healthcare costs than adults who are a healthy weight. I could not find the estimated cost of obesity in Italy, but a study by the OECD found that “The growing prevalence of obesity in OECD countries foreshadows increases in the occurrence of health problems ... and higher health care costs in the future.” Billions of dollars are spent on obesity in the US, and I would wager that it adds up to almost a half billion dollars worldwide… it is difficult to wrap my mind around that amount of money.

[It hurts me to see how much we are outspending other countries on healthcare. This is for another Keegan Fellowship project, but reforms need to happen (now).]

But that doesn’t mean the US (or world) has to spend this hefty amount of money. This is where Italian food directors have rationale in investing in high-quality nutritious lunches: studies that have shown that investing small amounts of money in positive health initiatives significantly lower long-term healthcare costs. A 2008 study by the Urban Institute found that “an investment of $10 per person in proven community-based programs to increase physical activity, improve nutrition and prevent smoking and other tobacco use could save the country more than $16 billion annually within five years. That's a return of $5.60 for every $1 invested. Out of the $16 billion, Medicare could save more than $5 billion and Medicaid could save more than $1.9 billion.”  

Wait. A five-to-one return on investment?

That’s amazing.

That sounds like what Rome’s school lunch program is doing. Perhaps the US should give it a try, too. Sadly, there have been no evaluations on Rome’s school lunch program, so we’ll have to wait and see how high quality ingredients affect the long-term health of students.

Conclusion and remarks for next installment

Though it is more expensive (especially in smaller school districts), the high cost of the Italian school lunch programs make economical sense considering the projected long-term benefits for its students. Frankly, the amount of money that the US government is investing in school lunches is too small. Though the USDA’s new nutrition guidelines require an increase of governmental spending of 10 cents per lunch (and 27 cents for breakfast), Congress only allocated 6 additional cents to these programs (Should I mention that this 6 additional cents was taken from the budget of EBT/food stamps? This topic is for another day … *steps off of soapbox*).  

I expect to post one more installment on economics for Italian school lunches, be on the lookout for it soon!


* It is important to note that this statement is complicated by several factors: scale, as well as the type of economies Italy and America have. For example, as mentioned earlier in my discussion of economies of scale, the US has 50+ million children, while the entire population of Italy is 59 million. So, it might be cheaper to feed the many more American students than the 8 million Italian students.  Another complicating factor is the differences in economies. Though both countries are highly industrialized, Italy and America still have sizable farming industries that directly feed into school lunch programs. Since it is common for Italian school lunch programs to buy local ingredients, buying local ingredients is not as expensive as it seems. All of this is to say that directly comparing the costs of ingredients is complex. Anecdotally, having seen both school lunch programs, the quality of Italian food is superior.  

[Grateful for simple, filling breakfasts. Oatmeal with cinnamon and lingonberries, coffee.]