Ministry plans cut back on free school milk to save costs

Milk bottles.
Milk bottles. Source: Hanna Samoson /ERR

Up to now, free milk has been provided to pupils in Estonia until they reach the end of high school. However, starting this fall, the Ministry of Regional Affairs and Agriculture plans to provide a free glass of milk a day only for pupils up to the sixth grade, in order to save costs.

Free milk was initially only provided to primary school (algkool) pupils. However, the program was extended to all schoolchildren in 2004. Milk is also distributed to nursery school children and young people in secondary vocational educational establishments.

When it comes to providing free fruit and vegetables, Estonia is a little more frugal, with a free apple or carrot provided for children from kindergarten up to fifth grade.

At the request of the Ministry of Regional Affairs and Agriculture, researchers from the University of Tartu examined the last five years of the program.

They recommended it be extended further,  and that children should be provided with free fruit and milk up until the end of high school.

Ahto Tilk, head of the ministry's agricultural policy department, said that the researchers' recommendation had been carefully considered.

"We did the math and we made calculations," explained Tilk, who added, that the researchers' proposal would mean significant additional costs.

According to Tilk, that idea had been put forward but had not been signed off on. "And now, we have had to go in a different direction," Tilk said.

What that different direction is, can be seen in the draft signed by Minister of Regional Affairs and Agriculture Madis Kallas (SDE), which shows that the number of pupils receiving free fruit and vegetables is set be extended. However, this will not be until the twelfth grade, only the sixth.

This means the target group will be cut by around 80,000 pupils, leaving free milk available for children in Estonian kindergartens and those in grades one to six.

Tilk explained that the program is supported by funding from the European Union, and the money from Brussels is based on the number of children in Estonia aged between six and ten.

The European Union has supported the program by providing an average of €1.3 million to €1.5 million per school year in funding. The Estonian state's own contribution to the scheme has fluctuated between €1.2 million and €1.7 million. That amount may also have been higher for the most recent academic year.

"There has never been such a large increase in prices before. And this has led to the need for a large additional budget for this school year. Now, we are still talking about the need for an additional €0.5 million. Most of that comes from the milk side," Tilk said.

Tilk also pointed out, that due to Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, there are currently around 8,000 more pupils in the Estonian school network than usual. "And this means that there are also more consumers," Tilk said, explaining that despite inflation, EU subsidies to support the scheme would not be increasing. At the same time, attempts are being made to reduce the state's contribution by around a third.

"There is no way we are going to ignore the contribution of the Estonian state. We are simply reducing the additional budgetary needs, which have arisen in the plan," Tilk said.

According to Hanna Alajõe, senior nutrition specialist at the Estonian National Institute for Health Development, fruit, vegetables and dairy products are important dietary components for school children of all ages. Alajõe said, that the older children get, the more they need to eat.

Alajõe also referred to nutritional studies in Estonia, which show that schoolchildren are not consuming enough fruit and vegetables. One study, for instance, revealed that only a fifth of children aged 11 to 15 eat fruit and vegetables every day. Another found that just over half of pupils in grades one to four eat fruit every day and around one in four eat vegetables.

"So it is positive that more pupils are starting to get fruit and vegetables," said Alajõe.

She added that the average intake of dairy products among schoolchildren is close to the recommended level. However, a recent survey found that a fifth of children do not consume milk or dairy products every day. "Dairy intake could fall below the recommended level if the supply of milk in schools decreases," Alajõe added.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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