Mother’s efforts improve school mealsHer relentless efforts to upgrade school meals for children have earned Bae Ok-byeong, a 49-year-old mother of two sons, an award from a women’s organization.
“I could not stand our children finding flies in kkakttugi (pickled radishes) and cockroaches in their soup at school,” Ms. Bae said.
The Korea Women’s Associations United gave the 18th Feminist Movement of the Year award to Ms. Bae, the president of the National School Meals Network (www.schoolbob.org).
At a press conference in Anguk-dong, northern Seoul, on Feb. 27, Ms. Bae said, “The mothers who took part in the network to raise a petition to get school meals laws are the co-recipients of this award.”
Ms. Bae took an interest in the quality of the meals in 1995, when her second son entered primary school. At a parents’ meeting, she found that mothers unanimously complained about school food. She suggested that they form a network to see how bad the food was.
She and a small number of other mothers began to monitor the quality of school meals, a rare thing at the time. They found problems everywhere ― fish were not fresh and vegetables were withered. “In the beginning, we believed that school food could be easily improved. But we were naive. Without the participation of school principals and teachers, the problems remained unsolved,” Ms. Bae said.
She began to push regional governments to enact school meals laws ― the main point being to dump low-quality, low-priced foodstuffs and switch to safe local products. After 10 years, schools on Jeju Island, in South Jeolla province and in Incheon began to use only organic agricultural products and rice grown without the use of pesticides. Outside North Jeolla province, 15 regional and 105 smaller governments have since passed local school meal laws.
“The movement to upgrade school meals is a representive example of grass-roots democracy,” she said.
Ms. Bae’s determination was not developed in a day. She was born to a poor farming family in Cheongyang, South Chungcheong province and only finished primary school as her family could not afford her further education. When she was 19 years old, she saw a bus advertising jobs in factories and boarded it. She ended up working at a wig factory in Seoul. Night classes she took enlightened her about workers’ rights and she took part in strikes, even ending up in jail.
“I dreamed of being a good wife and mother, but it wasn’t so easy,” she said.
Ms. Bae raised her two children while she passed tests for certificates equivalent to middle and high school diplomas, as well as being involved in setting up the school meals network.
In 2002, she entered Sungkonghoe University, majoring in sociology, and graduated last month.
“Schools need to be in charge of school meals instead of relying on outside caterers, and they should be free, as education is,” Ms. Bae said. “I’ll do my best to help pass an amendment to the national school meals laws.”
by Moon Kyung-ran