The school canteen has great potential to improve health and other aspects of childhood and adolescent development, but in Spain the service is far from the most advanced European models. And, with prices in public schools ranging from more than 4.25 to nine euros a day – aid aside – depending on the territories, it leaves out many of the kids who need it most, warns Sara Ayllón, researcher and teacher. of Economics from the University of Girona. Born 51 years ago in Gironella (Barcelona), she specializes in child poverty and school canteens, matters on which she will debate this Tuesday with other European experts in a conference organized by the High Commissioner against Child Poverty, framed in the Spanish presidency of the Council of the European Union, and which will take place in San Sebastián, Ayllón welcomes the announcement, made by Pedro Sánchez during his inauguration, that the Executive will inject funds in the new legislature into a public service whose competence has traditionally been autonomous. Although she is also cautious until she knows the scope of the announcement.
Ask. Do you think that the school cafeteria in Spain has many problems?
Answer. Yes. One of them is that the aid depends greatly on the autonomous community and even the province or municipality where the students live. And this generates enormous inequalities. In some places it is considered a subjective right; If you meet the conditions you receive the aid. But in others it is competitive, and you may not receive aid even if you meet the requirements because the budget has been exhausted. The main problem is that there are families that, despite being below the poverty line, do not receive the scholarship because the income limits to receive them are even lower. In Spain, the poverty threshold for a household with two adults and two children is set at an income of 21,100 euros per year. And the percentage of children who are in poverty is 28% (which represents a total of 2.2 million children and adolescents). We are the third country in the European Union with the highest percentage, behind only Bulgaria and Romania.
Q. What do you attribute to why Spain occupies such a bad position?
A. Among the causes is that we have a lack of direct economic transfers to families with dependent children. The relationship between direct aid to families and lower child poverty is very well documented. The puzzle of aid that we have in Spain at different levels, state, regional, provincial and municipal levels is extraordinarily complicated for a vulnerable family. Those who work in social services say that many times in these homes they do not have the capacity or knowledge to carry out the administrative process that many of the aids require. When a vulnerable family is looking for a way to pay the rent at the end of the month, they have more difficulty remembering that this week is the deadline to apply for the dining scholarship.
Q. How many boys and girls in poverty do not receive the soup kitchen scholarship? Some studies suggest that they are around a million.
A. There are many, of course, but the lack of data means that we do not have a reliable figure.
Q. What is the school cafeteria in Spain like compared to its surroundings?
A. We are far behind the most advanced. In Finland, for example, the canteen is universal and free, and has been implemented since 1943. All children whose families decide so use the service in primary and secondary school. Students and teachers sit together at the table to eat and talk. And it is part of the school curriculum. It is not a service that is added to the school. It’s part of the school. In Spain, on the other hand, there is aid, but the general model is payment. And middle-income and high-income families are the ones that use it the most. Those from vulnerable families, on the other hand, use it less, especially if they do not have the scholarship, which makes no sense. This should be a service that all children could take advantage of, and especially those from low-income families who are the ones who need it most. In this way we would also avoid other inequalities that occur during midday, not only because of the activities and extracurricular activities that take place then, but because it is also a space to make friends, develop the so-called soft skills, social skills or interpersonal development.
Professor Sara Ayllón on a street in Gironella, (Barcelona). massimiliano minocri
Q. Is there a relationship between growth in the continuous working day and reduction in the school cafeteria service?
A. Yes, where there is more continuous work, there is usually less coverage and use of the dining room. It is very clear in secondary school, a stage in which the continuous day is widespread in public education. When students go from primary to secondary school they lose a service that is very important at that age, especially for those from vulnerable families.
Q. Does the school cafeteria have an effect on educational performance?
A. Most of the scientific literature that exists is from the United States, which has a system a little different from ours, and there is no consensus on the impact of school lunch programs on some dimensions of children’s development. In the case of academic performance, there are articles that determine a positive causal impact of the dining scholarship program on academic performance. But others don’t. In no case are negative effects seen, but some do not find positive effects either. And the same happens with other issues, such as the effect of the service on student behavior. We need much more research. Even in the effects on health, because although many articles reflect positive effects on nutrition, the consumption of vitamins, proteins, the reduction of obesity, as well as benefits throughout life, such as better health in later life adult, there are also some works that associate it, for example, with an increased risk of obesity. It may depend on the type of specific program, and the type of food the children receive in them, because in the United States there are very different programs.
Q. What is most urgent?
R. Increase the coverage of dining scholarships, facilitate the application process and ensure that all children in poverty have this daily meal completely free of charge. 6% of minors live in homes where they cannot afford a meal of meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent (in protein) every two days. And having to pay a percentage of the school cafeteria makes some families give up the service. They have explained to me cases such as that of a family of three children for whom the aid covered 70% of the price. They had to supplement the 30%, but they couldn’t, so they ended up giving up the help and eating at home we don’t know what.
Q. Shouldn’t ex officio aid be given?
A. In Spain there are some experiments where it is being done. And in the United States there are programs in which if more than 40% of a school’s students receive the dining scholarship, it becomes universal for the entire school. We must gain coverage and set our sights on reaching a universal and free canteen as five EU countries, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, already have.
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