Nordic exposure: a healthy approach to building a community

18 January 2013

Katherine Trebek discusses how Glasgow can learn from Scandinavian ways of creating healthy places to live.

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.


About the author

Katherine Trebeck Policy and Advocacy Manager for Oxfam’s UK Programme


Katherine is Policy and Advocacy Manager for Oxfam’s UK Programme. In this role she leads Oxfam’s UK policy efforts which focus on inequality, tax, welfare, the green and just economy and the experience of poverty in an unequal society. Prior to this role she was Research and Policy Advisor for Oxfam’s Scotland office.

She developed Oxfam’s Humankind Index, a measure of Scotland’s real prosperity developed through wide ranging community consultation. She also managed Oxfam’s Whose Economy? Project which asked why, despite decades of economic growth, Scotland’s poverty has not been addressed and inequalities have deepened.

Read all articles by Katherine Trebeck

Comments (4)

  • Emilia Åman replied on Mon 21 Jan 2013 at 12:40PM:

    Interesting article! It was very nice to have a delegation from Glasgow here in Gothenburg and it is wonderful to hear that you already have implemented some of our policies in one school in Glasgow. We really think it's a good thing that all children can eat healthy free meals every day in a stress free environment at school and kindergarten together with adults.

    People in Sweden sometimes complain about the high taxes, but at the same time we are willing to pay higher taxes because we for example like our children to enjoy free school meals and public transportation.

    We are impressed by your goal in Glasgow for children to participate in some kind of physical activities at least five hours a week! That is really something for us to think about and try to implement here in Sweden!

    Regular physical activities, healthy food, education etc. are connected and give all children the opportunity to reach higher goals if provided to everyone. But like you pointed out, it's not an easy question to answer which comes first: "The equality that enable the policies, or the policies that deliver the equality?"

    Keep up with your good work!!!

  • Bruce Whyte replied on Tue 29 Jan 2013 at 02:10PM:

    As a member of the study group that went to Gothenburg, I was also struck by the Swedes commitment to environmental issues. This came out very clearly in two different aspects of the city's plans.

    Their food programme commits to sourcing local, organic, seasonal and sustainable ingredients for meals provided across the city. While in the sphere of active transport, 10% of commuting journeys are by bicycle in the city already but they want to increase this further and have plans to provide more cycling infrastructure.

    None of these commitments can be achieved in a short-timescale, but political commitment - no doubt in the face of opposition sometimes - and the investment of significant resources are moving Gothenburg toward a more sustainable future.

    There is much to learn here for Glasgow and other cities across Scotland. Not least the Goteborgare approach to children's playtime in cold weather, "there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes".

  • Mark Langdon replied on Sun 03 Feb 2013 at 07:41PM:

    It's lovely that you guys had a a nice trip to Sweden, it's important that even in times of Coalition prescribed austerity that we can still identify resources to ensure our policy experts don't become too insular. Unfortunately meanwhile policies which will decimate any modicum of progress made in addressing inequality are being implemented and begin to make the work of GCPH appear more and more of an irrelevance.
    Perhaps we need to take a more penetrating and honest assessment of why we currently fail to implement effective policies and why when the turn out in Glasgow for the last local election was under 32% no one is asking why the electorate is abandoning democratic engagement.
    The answers and the problems lie close to home we just need those with the desire and determination to embrace them to act decisively rather than perching precariously on fences, writing fascinating but ultimately ineffectual reports.

  • Fiona Crawford replied on Wed 06 Feb 2013 at 03:45PM:

    The trip to Gothenburg was part of a wider programme of work exploring what works in relation to healthy school food policies and initiatives. This collaborative work has had a number of tangible impacts locally. It has:

    Directly informed the ongoing development of Glasgow’s healthy school food policies and programmes by highlighting the importance of the physical and social environment in primary schools.
    Led to the introduction of lunchtime stay-on-site policies for junior secondary pupils and more consistent stay-on-site policies for all primary school pupils.
    Made concrete and practical suggestions for action in this arena at local and national level by identifying the negative impacts of the commercial food environment near schools on pupils’ health and wellbeing.

Commenting is now closed on this article.