Cape Town, South Africa

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

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Carrots “recreating” culture: Self-Reliance in Finland and Sweden

Hi everyone! I hope you are doing well. This morning I am grabbing coffee (and doing work, between joyful conversations) with my wonderful friend, Cayenne. She is studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and getting to spend time with her has been incredibly life-giving.

 [At Cafe Retro, a nonprofit cafe that sends all profits to charities in Africa]

I’ve noticed that over time, my conversations with fellow travelers are roughly the same:

“Where are you from?” - America
“Where in the US?” - Minnesota
“Where is that?” - … directly up from Texas, right below Canada?
“How long are you traveling for?” - For a year, because I am doing research
“What are you researching?” - National School Lunch Programs

… and then a few more questions follow. Repeat, repeat, repeat. When traveling frequently, it is difficult to find and nurture deeper friendships. So, when I run into friends like Cayenne, it is a breath of fresh air. She knows where I am from, where I have been, and doesn’t feel the need to ask - we just pick up where we left off!

[On a bridge over one of the many lakes in Copenhagen!]

Speaking of picking up where I left off, today I want to talk about a cultural phenomenon that extends to all of Scandinavia - Sweden, Finland, and Denmark (and probably Norway, as well - I just haven’t been there!). The national school lunch programs in these countries are a vehicle to promote a cultural characteristic of Scandinavia: self-reliance and responsibility.

Self-Reliance in Finland and Sweden

From a young age, Scandinavian children are taught to be autonomous, self-reliant individuals. Personal responsibility is one of the most important traits in society, according to the locals I have met in Sweden and Finland; I have seen 7 year olds riding the tram alone, 4 year olds riding bikes unsupervised, and young students using knives in the Swedish lunchroom.

But how do these children learn to be self-reliant? Well, one way is through the national school lunch program. In America, when a child enters into the lunchroom, he is instructed to wait in line. Then, he is served by a lunch lady (or man!) and is given a specific amount of each food. So, every lunch tray theoretically looks the same - the child has little say in the matter.* I don’t suggest that this is wrong or bad - just different, very different - from Scandinavian lunchrooms.

When a student enters into a Swedish or Finnish lunchroom, there are many choices he has to make. He can take any amount of any dish - or none at all - and must serve himself. While this sounds slightly underwhelming, picture this: a kindergartner steps up to the food section to serve himself soup. First, he must open the hot vat, pick up a ladle, and coordinate his hands to successfully get it into the bowl. Hehe, so cute.

Or, imagine kindergartners cutting their own chicken breasts. Seems difficult, right? While difficult, this is a step that school officials take so their students begin building self-responsibility and autonomy. The student must decide what is an acceptable amount of food to take, and which foods to take more or less of.

Consequences are built in; if the child does not take enough food, he will be hungry. If he takes too much, he stands the risk of being chastised for wasting food. Thus, increasing autonomy has a great byproduct: understanding portion size, which is incredibly important for a child’s future health outcomes.

[A helpful guide to portion size]

School lunch provides a consistent, safe opportunity for children to make choices, take “risks” (“Should I try beetroot or not…”), and face the consequences of their choices. Sure, there may be a few spills here and there, a few burnt tongues, but it begins to instill the cultural characteristic of self-reliance in Scandinavian students.

Thank you again for taking the time to read through this post, I appreciate it so much. I will talk to you soon! There will be some delays in my writing over the next two weeks, as I will be taking some time to travel with friends.


* Even though the traditional lunch line is still heavily prevalent in American lunchrooms, American students are having increasing amounts of autonomy to choose the foods they want to eat. For example, many schools are introducing a salad bar that the student gets to pull from. Though the entree options are still served by adults, the child can now choose their own salads.

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