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Aerial view of Gothenburg on a sunny cloudless day.

Nordic exposure: a healthy approach to building a community

18 Jan 2013 | Katherine Trebeck

AA Gill recently observed that “Scandinavia has long been held up as the paragon of a decent, evolved society... In every survey of enviable smugness Scandinavia comes first”. He describes our current looking to the European North (whether for TV shows, crime thrillers, high street fashion or socioeconomic models) as reflecting a “Scandinavian moment”.

Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) seem to be part of this (very welcome) aversion of collective eyes from the USA as the source of all social policy ideas worth pursuing. Instead, GCPH have recently been looking to Sweden for ideas to bring back to Glasgow. In particular they have been exploring the links between the City of Gothenburg and the City of Glasgow.

There are similarities in terms of their relative size, their fairly similar weather, their similar history of water-based industrial development and even their participation in the El Sistema orchestra.

But it does seem Glasgow has a wee bit more to learn from Gothenburg than the other way around.

GCPH’s report from a learning exchange to Gothenburg suggests that across school meals, physical education and public transport Glasgow’s Swedish cousins are doing things worth emulating.

For example, while many of Glasgow’s communities are establishing food banks and hearing stories of mothers going without an evening meal so their children don’t go to bed hungry, Gothenburg sees school meals as an intrinsic part of education – they’ve been free for all for the last 50 years.

Midday meals at schools are seen as an opportunity to encourage good eating habits; a time for healthy food to be shared and conversation to flow; a chance to prioritise organic, seasonal and locally produced food; and a process in which students join staff in designing and delivering meals.

The exciting thing is, there are signs that the ideas GCPH are bringing back from Gothenburg are beginning to be taken up by Glasgow City Council. The Council’s Primary Physical Education and Music Manager joined the trip and has since developed a pilot of ‘the Gothenburg approach’ to school meals at Caledonia Primary School in Glasgow’s East End.

Clearly, if it was as simple as picking and choosing a few nice and interesting policies and approaches and rolling them out in Glasgow, then it would have been done many years ago.

Wider socioeconomic contexts matter – Scandinavian countries have much lower levels of inequality which affords greater social cohesiveness and a resulting shared sense of the social contract and obligation to each other and the collective. Ostensibly, people willingly pay higher taxes because they see every day the benefit they receive in return.

But, when it comes to moving Scotland a wee step towards desirable Scandinavian socioeconomic outcomes, one cannot wonder which needs to come first? The equality that enables the policies, or the policies that deliver the equality? In lieu of either being attained in any comprehensive way in the near future, a little pocket of Swedish policies implemented in one school in Glasgow is as good a place as any to start.

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Engagement, enjoyment and education: lessons learnt from the Gothenburg school meal programme

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