Monday, June 13, 2005

There is such a thing as a free lunch - if you're a child

On Friday, I witnessed one of the summer rituals in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo - free lunch in the park for children!

The free lunches had just kicked off that week on Monday - early June. The park I visited - Asukas Puisto in Tapiola - was overflowing with children ranging from toddlers to young school aged kids who had come with their parents to participate. All they need to bring is their own plate/bowl and eating utensil.

At 11.30, the hot lunch distribution begins. Everyone just lines up and takes their turn. On the menu was a simple potato and chicken casserole. Food is distributed until 12.30 or until supplies run out. Around noon, one of the park "aunts" made an announcement over a bull-horn that no seconds for anyone until everyone has gotten their first plate because 'until supplies run out' means everyone gets some.

A nice tradition that brings parents and children in the neighborhoods together during the summer; it also gives mom/dad a break from preparing one meal. But, its not without its controversy.

I read in the local paper that nearly 700,000 EUR of tax payer money is spent annually on the lunches in the parks. Unfortunately, a lot of food often goes to waste because not enough people show up to eat. This is particularly an issue if its a cooler, rainier summer. But, since food has to be ordered a week in advance, its hard to plan for the weather. One of the mothers in the park on Friday said its a shame that the left-over food cannot be given to the parents. They won't even sell it to the parents. Rather, it goes straight into the trash can.

I also wonder if this kind of benefit is really needed in every neighborhood. On the surface at least very few of the children/parents I saw on Friday looked to be in dire need of a free meal. But, perhaps the purpose is more in developing a sense of community and making sure that every child gets at least one 'healthy', warm meal a day.

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