Meal stipend for poor children sees criticisms

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Meal stipend for poor children sees criticisms

Vacation season is here, school is out and a number of students have made plans for the summer. Yet, while many children are enjoying blissful moments under the sun, others are not so lucky. An estimated 480,000 children from disadvantaged families across the nation are living from hand-to-mouth, worrying about where they will find their next meal. Many of these children spend their time alone since both parents have to work.

To help, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has offered these underprivileged children the “Kkumnamu card,” also known as the “Dream Tree card,” since 2009. The card is an electronic version of the previously issued paper meal coupons. By using a Dream Tree card, a child can get a single meal for under 4,000 won ($3.76) from convenience stores or restaurants participating in the program. Any remaining balance expires after two days.

Around 67 percent of Seoul’s estimated 46,000 underfed students currently have Dream Tree cards, according to the city government.

Although the government’s original intention of enabling underfed children to eat meals at low prices seems admirable, many experts are questioning the program’s effectiveness.

“In order to ensure that children eat their meals every day, the reserve limit of these cards is two days,” an official at Seoul’s juvenile services department said. “If the period were to be expanded to more than two days, there is the danger that children will [not eat] for a considerable period to save up their money and then go on a binge.”

However, students have expressed concerns about the card’s two-day validity period. Paper coupons, which the card replaced, were valid for a month, so students could be flexible with when they used them.

There are also worries that some children may be unable to find a meal under 4,000 won or may have trouble finding food that is covered by the card.

Since most restaurants serve meals costing over 4,000 won, the only realistic choices are low-nutrition flour-based products like sandwiches or processed meat products and other instant foods.

The fact that home delivery service is not possible is another problem. Previously, when using paper meal coupons, students were able to ask for delivery.

But since the introduction of the new program, participating children must visit a store every time they want to have a meal because some of the participating stores do not have portable card readers.

Another problem is that every time a child pays the bill, they have to show the card, which identifies them as a “poor” child. As a result, children often feel a sense of humiliation, which in extreme cases can lead them to avoid using the card completely.

“When I used paper meal coupons, I could hide the fact that I’m a poorly fed child. However, after it changed, sometimes I skipped meals due to humiliation,” said Lee, a 10-year-old elementary school student.


By Lee Kwon-hee, Lim Hee-su [enational@joongang.co.kr]

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