Organic food for kids

Organic and local food remains a hot topic in 2012. Newspaper articles shuffle grandmother-style nostalgia with a less guilty conscience. Chefs dig up cucumber and root vegetable recipes from decades past, all with an underlying theme of homemade sustainability. Organic is very much in vogue.

Photo Tuomas Kaisti

Trends aside, it seems that organic food is not a passing fad, but speaks of a more fundamental change in domestic food production. Organic farming should be supported.

Just over half a century ago, the agricultural technology, which gave birth to the green revolution, more then tripled the crops yielded. At the same time, arable land was exposed to erosion and the sea basin suffered from toxins, as we have unfortunately now come to notice. The Baltic Sea has the world’s largest density of blue-green algae in the summertime, caused by the use of highly phosphoric fertilisers. This is one reason why we are in dire need of new ideas and a renewed perspective on food production.

There are more reasons than this to support organic farming. Unclean food is both a security and a health threat. Many compound effects of chemicals consumed through food and the environment are still unkown. In addition, organic farming guarantees better living conditions for farm animals as high-scale industrial production often means unfit environments resulting in unnatural behaviour.

As organic food is a forward-looking topic, children should be seen as a key target group. Top quality food in kindergartens and preschools is a worthwhile investment in the future as it pays for itself in improved public health.

Before we discuss the organic food initiative of the City of Helsinki it is useful to take a look at some recent figures.  The Finnish market for organic food grew by an astounding 46 per cent in 2011. By October 2012 the market expanded an additional 26 per cent compared to the previous year. In spite of these significant figures, organic food still accounts for only one per cent of all food served. There is still plenty of room for growth.

Helsinki is beating new paths

The City of Helsinki has taken on the challenge of becoming a trailblazer in organic food, and has established a target to ensure 50 per cent of food served in preschools is organic by 2015.

While much has developed quickly in this area, reaching this ambitious goal will be challenging. Organic food already accounts for 14 per cent of preschool food in 2012. The city granted 400 000 € to reach the set target, which allowed preschools to increase the use of organic ingredients. At the moment, additional funding for 2013 has not been granted, which might delay the attainment of the goal. Organic food is still more expensive than non-organic food, which poses financial pressures.

The City of Helsinki is a big actor. It could serve as an example for others to favour organic food. Economies of scale could also lead to reducing market prices of organic food. If the city target is to be met, some of the budget should temporarily be allocated to preschool meals. It should be clearly indicated that there is demand for organic produce in the future. If budgets are reviewed only on an annual basis, there is no room to build long-term commitment within the food industry.

Another challenge is posed by the availability of organic food items. The city caterer, Palmia, serves some 90 000 meals daily, 18 000 of these in preschools. Ingredient supply should meet with demand. More than anything, the current imbalance arises from a logistical challenge. This issue should be solved in collaboration with producers during the next years in order to meet the 2015 target.

Fortunately the amount of organic farms is also on the rise, which is a good signal. Southwest Finland has seen a rise in organic farms of five per cent in the past year, along with a 10 per cent rise in organic field area, including farmland in transition.

Kids as herb gardeners

The newfound organic enthusiasm of preschools and other learning institutions has also been noted outside the educational world. Patronised by the Mayor of Helsinki, a gardening project in schools was launched in spring 2012. The core of the idea was that school children could grow vegetables and herbs to be used in the canteen. The first workshop was attended by 19 teachers. Similar efforts have also been seen in preschools in collaboration with the renowned environmental NGO, Dodo. In addition, schools have learned about food culture through world food theme weeks, as well as seasonal festivities highlighting Finnish food traditions.

The concrete actions described above ensure that Finland will continue to be a vanguard of complimentary school food. The big picture is even more encompassing. The strength of Finnish food culture should be its breadth and reach. Michelin stars are tasty surprises, but good food should not be limited to fine dining. It therefore makes sense to start with children.

The tastiness of a meal is directly linked to the quality of ingredients, which form the basis of a healthy diet. Delicious ingredients don’t require excessive salt, grease or additives. All schools should focus on educating young citizens on the importance of taste, in order for them to appreciate good food later in life.

In 2012 food has become a culture of its own. A strategy and a human approach are needed, and city schools are already doing a good job in this regard. Food also plays a central role in the foundation of a collective identity. Creativity should be cherished. We should be allowed to play with food, as long as we appreciate it.

Professor of Food Culture, Johanna Mäkelä, considers the interaction between children and food services personnel as highly relevant. Children should be encouraged to converse with the individuals preparing their food, so they come to appreciate the hard work that is put into their daily meals. Professor Mäkelä’s vision supports several goals, such as wasting less food and saving money. We hope that these thoughts inspire new ways to increase interaction between school children and school staff.

During the past year, Finnish school food has popped up in unusual places. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) showcased typical Finnish school meals in the Back to School: Taste of Finland event in the museum cafeteria. Chef Petteri Luoto received plenty of positive feedback as many art lovers also confessed their affection for Finnish salmon soup.

Innovative events are good ways of strengthening the image of the Finnish school system abroad. Helsinki has hosted numerous delegations exploring all sides of public schooling in the country.

A 2012 highlight is the School Food Diploma awarded to schools with an exceptional take on school food services. The diploma certifies both public and private food service providers and rewards the most commendable. The diplomas serve to acknowledge positive achievements in the field.

One development area lies in communications. Success stories should be boldly announced. Reports and findings should be translated into English and disseminated widely and systematically.

Several projects are in the making for the 2013–2014 period. Current food-related projects will be continued and brought to scale. In addition, eight pilot working groups will be set up in schools with the purpose of involving students in the planning of school food services. A campaign to reduce bio waste will also be initiated in 2013.

Further involving students in the discussion on school food is an important component of the Helsinki Food Culture Strategy, which entails both short-term and long-term goals. All this and more are important milestones on the path to a tastier Helsinki.