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Free school meals as an opportunity to target social equality, healthy eating, and school functioning: experiences from students and teachers in Norway

Kristine E. Illøkken, Berit Johannessen, Mary E. Barker, Polly Hardy-Johnson, Nina Cecilie Øverby, Frøydis Nordgård Vik

Abstract: Background: There are no national arrangements for free school meals provision in Norway despite this being an important opportunity to improve children’s and adolescents’ nutritional status and ultimately their physical and cognitive development. During a one academic year (2014–2015), a group of Norwegian sixth graders were served a free healthy school meal in a project called ‘The School Meal Project’. Objective: To explore students’ and teachers’ experiences of receiving free school meals after the free school meal in 2015 and 5 years later. Design: In-depth, semi-structured interviews with separate groups in 2015 and in 2020 were conducted face to face or via telephone or digital platforms. The findings are based on 13 students (aged 12–16) and 5 teacher interviews. Findings: Thematic analysis identified four main themes that describe the perceived benefits of receiving free school meals: 1) the meal as a social event where students made new friends and learned new skills; 2) as an aid to forming healthy eating habits; and as an opportunity to 3) improve school functioning and 4) increase social equality among students. Discussion: Our analysis suggests that the free school meal may influence healthy behaviors not only at the individual level but also at the social-, physical-, and macro-levels. Methodological limitations, including self-selection bias, should be considered when interpreting our findings. Conclusion: This study provides unique insights into the social benefits for students of receiving free school meals. Our findings illustrate the potential of free school meals: eating healthy foods, sharing a meal together, and interaction between students and teachers at mealtime, to promote health, learning, and equality. In order to maximize these benefits through national implementation of free school meals, more understanding is needed of possible facilitators and barriers related to the provision and uptake of free school meals.
Keywords: free school meal / lunch / Norway / intervention / interviews / social inequality / learning / social environment / diet / school function

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