What countries provide free school lunches – and should New Zealand follow suit?

NewsHub 3 May 2021
Advocates are urging the Government to ensure every child in a New Zealand state school has access to a free and healthy lunch – and follow in the footsteps of several world-leading countries.

The Government currently provides free lunches to a quarter of New Zealand schools, but it mainly focuses on the lowest-decile schools across the country.

The AM Show on Monday launched its campaign for free lunches for all Kiwi kids and is backed by Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, who is “totally in support” of the initiative, which he said is proven to be beneficial.

“It’s not out of left-field. Scandinavia, England, parts of the US do it. It’s got a good track-record and it’s proven to be advantageous – it just seems to me to be screamingly obvious.”

Newshub looked into what countries provide free lunches in schools.


SkolmatSverige, an organisation that helps schools to develop the quality of school meals, says every child in Sweden who attends primary school (between ages 6 – 15) is entitled to a free school lunch every day.

“This has been enshrined in the legislation that covers all aspects of schooling (the Education Act) since 1997. In reality, the practice is much older than this, and school meals have been documented since the late 1800s.”

In 2011, the rules were changed so the meals also had to be nutritious.

The meals consist of a warm main dish (eg, stew and potatoes, meatballs with spaghetti), a salad from a buffet, a drink (milk or water), bread and spread. It is all served on a help-yourself basis.


Every Finnish child (between 6-16 years) is entitled to a free daily school meal in both primary and secondary schools.

The initiative began 70 years ago to help students attend and concentrate on school, according to Finland tertiary institution JAMK University of Applied Sciences.

“Finland was the first country in the world to serve free school meals, and it is a world leader in nutritional expertise. Providing free school meals became mandatory for municipalities in 1948. In Finland, health and well-being are built through qualitative food education.”


India has a ‘midday meal’ scheme that feeds 120 million children daily. The Guardian reported it’s the largest school feeding programme of its kind in the world.

It was originally set up in 1995 to ensure hunger didn’t stop children from attending school, but is now rife with corruption and has inadequate systems to roll the programme out.

“[It] frequently endangers and lets down the vulnerable population it seeks to serve,” The Guardian reported.

In 2013, 23 students aged 4-12 years old died after their free lunch was laced with pesticide.

The principal of the school in eastern India was subsequently arrested, according to ABC.


Estonia in Northern Europe is another country that caters free school lunches.

Minister for Education and Research Mailis Reps told BBC apart from kindergarten, parents are not expected to contribute financially.

“Free in Estonia really means free. You don’t pay for textbooks, you don’t pay for the school lunches, you don’t pay for school transportation.”

United States

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently runs a National School Lunch Program which provides Government-funded meals to children in public and non-profit schools and residential child care institutions.

The programme was established by then-President Harry Truman in 1946 and reached around 7.1 million in its first year. By 2016, it reached over 30 million children.

One major issue the service encountered was the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down many schools around the country.

Under President Donald Trump, the programme’s rules were tweaked so children no longer had to gather and eat their meals on-site.

“USDA was able to make temporary changes so that meals may be taken home, and parents or guardians may pick meals for their children if the state allows. Families can use this tool to find directions to nearby sites as well as hours of operation and contact information.”

United Kingdom

School meals in the United Kingdom have been at least partially funded by the Government for more than a century, the BBC reported, over concerns for children being malnourished and too hungry to concentrate on lessons.

In England, children at all levels of schooling are eligible if their household receives benefits including:

  • Income support
  • Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
  • Income-related employment and support allowance

But the requirements differ in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England and Scotland, all infant state school pupils (those in Years 1 and 2) can get free school meals during term time.

The Government temporarily extended the eligibility criteria during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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