This City Gives Free Lunches to Children in Playgrounds All Summer Long

Helsinki's 80-year tradition makes free-range parenting much easier.

aerial view of Helsinki in summer

Miemo Penttinen - / Getty Images

Just when I thought Scandinavia couldn't possibly get more progressive, I stumbled across a tweet that mentioned Helsinki, Finland's summer playground meal program. Curiosity instantly piqued, I went down an exploratory rabbit hole to find out what that was. Turns out, it's exactly what its name suggests—a program that runs from June till August and feeds children hot, free outdoor meals in playgrounds around the city.

This remarkable tradition has been going on for 80 years. As a website for the city explains, public food distribution started in 1942, "in the middle of a war, when food shortage tormented most people in Helsinki. The city wanted to offer children at least one warm meal a day." 

Even today, these playground meals continue to make families' lives easier. Anyone under the age of 16 is eligible for food, as long as they show up with an empty dish and a fork or a spoon—no parental supervision required. (Drinks must also be brought from home.) The meals are served at noon every weekday in approximately 40 playgrounds around Helsinki. Hundreds of children participate, with one playground in Orava saying it feeds between 100 and 200 children daily. 

As one playground supervisor Eija Sormunen told news outlet HBL (translated from Finnish), "During the summer holidays, many school-age children come here to spend time and eat food while their parents are at work." This amazed me, as did the comment added in the original tweet that alerted me to the tradition. William Doyle wrote, "Free/low-cost playground daycare lets parents work. Super-safe city filled with 9, 10 year olds out on their own. Beyond astonishing."

This hits so many Treehugger buttons, I hardly know where to start. I've long advocated for greater independence for children, for them to be allowed to roam more freely in their home neighborhoods and to play actively outdoors with friends. But this requires parents to let their children go, to provide them with the tools to care for themselves, and to trust them to be capable of handling situations that arise. I have long lamented the lack of a supportive system that enables parents to do this. 

A publicly-funded lunch program, however, totally changes the game. Not only can you rest assured that your 9-year-old isn't cooking (which, admittedly, is a bit stressful if you're not home to supervise), but there's a sense of reassurance knowing that another adult (the lunch server) is keeping an eye out and that other children are congregating in the parks, too. There's safety in numbers.

The prioritization of healthy, nutritious meals—the HBL article gives the example of children eating bowls of hot salmon soup—thrills me, too. All too often children are left to subsist on overly packaged snack foods deemed safe by parents, rather than eating the substantial homemade meals that their bodies need to grow—and to develop well-rounded palates that are receptive to rich flavors and seasonal ingredients. As the city website states, "This year, the menu includes more traditional everyday dishes and food suitable for vegetarians and vegans, based on customers' wishes."

The fact that it's all presumably zero-waste, with the child providing their own dish, is wonderfully refreshing, as well. No stacks of dirty disposable bowls and single-use plastic spoons getting discarded by the thousands each day—no, these children are assumed to be sufficiently responsible to handle their own dishes. I bet they're washing them at home, too.

This tradition resolves the eternal dilemma of park-going parents of how to feed one's children when they inevitably get hungry. When my children were little, I was always terrible at packing snacks and our outings often derailed into frustrating excursions that were sabotaged by hunger. To have a stand in a park handing out hot lunch would have been a game-changer: one less thing to worry about and a profound incentive to get outside every day.

One parent, a Brit living in Helsinki, wrote to The Guardian in 2019 describing how helpful the meal program is to families, regardless of their socio-economic level. "This service is not specifically meant to benefit low-income parents, more as an equaliser that brings all parents together, irrespective of other factors. In many ways it can be seen as a parallel to the baby boxes, which so many other nations around the world seem to be interested in." He said that he and his wife often take their children to the parks, which are well-equipped and maintained, "letting the children play and make new friends while we socialise with other parents." 

It sounds idyllic. But I keep coming back to this heartwarming vision of a solitary free-range kid, hanging out at home while their parents work, who is able to run over to the nearest park and get a delicious lunch, visit with friends, and play vigorously for a few hours before returning home whenever they're ready. This is a society that has clearly designed and planned with children in mind, that acknowledges their inherent capability, that treats them like the equal citizens they deserve to be, rather than some inconvenient afterthought that must be endured until they become contributing working adults.

If only we could take a page out of Helsinki's book and create something similar here in Canada and the U.S., but I fear it would never work. Parents are too afraid to let the kids outside. They're afraid of what would happen and of getting in trouble themselves for promoting independence. The kids themselves are delicate, picky, and likely to turn up their noses at salmon soup—not go back for three servings like one little boy described in the HBL story. There would be waivers needing to be signed for food allergy purposes and potential burns and choking and goodness knows what else. So the idea would die before it could ever become reality—and once again the children are the ones who'd suffer for it, enrolled in tedious yet expensive summer activity programs that structure every activity in the name of safety and never allowed just to be

Am I resentful? Perhaps a little. I grieve for the many North American children who cannot enjoy the freedom that these Finnish children do. We do our children a tremendous disservice by keeping them cooped up at home, and if something as small as a free playground lunch service can change that, we should be fighting tooth and nail to implement it here.

View Article Sources
  1. "Playground Meals." Helsinki.