Get real on school lunchesOpposition parties benefi ted from campaigning for free school meals during last month’s local elections. But the conservative ruling party railed against the populist appeal with its own logic that it would be unfair to provide free school lunches with taxpayers’ money to well-off children. However, the opposition party is already stalling over its campaign on school meals. One by one, governors, mayors and superintendents of education from opposition parties are citing budget shortages as a reason to shelve or scale back the plan. Did they not know they would need money when they vowed to fully subsidize school lunches?
Kwak No-hyun, the liberal superintendent of education for Seoul, insists he will keep his promise of providing free lunches to 600,000 elementary school children in Seoul starting next year. About 170 billion won ($141.4 million) in additional funds is needed on top of current meal subsidies to realize his plan. If Seoul uses the operating funds left from fixed expenditures on lunch subsidies, it will have to abandon other urgent projects like improving school facilities.
It wouldn’t matter if local governments didn’t have worry about funding. But with most local governments suffering a financial squeeze, they need to prioritize in appropriating a budget for efficient fund management. We must ask if it really is so important to offer free lunches with eco-friendly ingredients to all schoolchildren regardless of their wealth. The needy children, of course, should get help. So the government plans to raise the subsidy ratio to cover 30 percent of the low-income bracket, similar to levels found in other advanced nations.
If there is extra money in the coffers, authorities should ensure children from poor families get hot lunches during school breaks or holidays. Local governments hand out one food coupon worth 3,000 won during the summer and winter breaks. There are many in our neighborhoods who endure a full day with a coupon that can buy only one bowl of jajangmyeon.
For many students, school lunches are the only decent meal of the day they get. They must be tended to first. If, after that, there’s still money in the budget, the quality of food in school lunches must be improved. We could emulate European countries that offer free produce to children of poor families to help them get their vitamins.
There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of money to be spent before we can provide free school meals for all. Teachers affiliated with the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations intend to campaign against this plan. We must stop wasting time over vain campaign promises and instead focus on realistic policies.