Free lunches eating into schools’ other budgets

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Free lunches eating into schools’ other budgets

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Students at an elementary school in Seoul enjoy free lunches yesterday. As the free lunch program gets expanded to more and more students across the nation, local governments and district offices of education are facing difficulties in securing additional funds to pay for the program. [YONHAP]


Seoul residents showed their support for free school lunches at last week’s failed referendum.

But many areas are finding it difficult to find the money for students’ lunches, and are being forced to cut back on other programs, such as improving school facilities and supporting disabled students.

According to a recent survey by an agency called ‘School Meal Network’, about 81.2 percent of elementary schools are partly offering free lunches to students and are expected to spend more money in the fall semester on the meals. But most don’t have the proper budgets.

Incheon city will give free meals to all elementary students from grade one to six starting in the fall semester. Previously, meals were provided for grades three to six.

To expand the program, Incheon will need an additional budget of 9.3 billion won ($8.6 million) for the fall semester, but it only has 5.2 billion.

The city said it will draw up a revised supplementary budget, but the chance of passing the bill in the city council is unclear due to disagreements among political parties.

Gunpo city in Gyeonggi, which started free lunches in the fifth and sixth grades last year and expanded it to all elementary school students at the beginning of 2011, will start providing lunches to preschool students below the age of five. The total education budget for Gunpo city in 2011 is 10.2 billion won, and 3.7 billion won was earmarked for meals, although that didn’t include the preschool students.

“We are considering cutting some budgets, which were supposed to be spent for other education policies, such as improving school facilities,” an official said.

The Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education said that it has doubled budgets for free meals this year while it reduced 97 percent of the money that was earmarked to help disabled students, children of multiethnic families, and several other educational projects.

“We are about to stop several educational projects because of the free meal policy, which is squeezing the budgets,” said Kim Dong-seok, spokesmen of the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations.

In addition, worries about the quality of the meals at schools are growing as food prices continue to rise. Elementary schools in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, are considering purchasing cheaper ingredients for side dishes, such as seaweed instead of kimchi.

“It’s hard to make out meal plans because prices of vegetables, including cabbages and radishes, which are the main ingredients in kimchi, have increased,” a nutritionist in an elementary school said.

“We expect the prices to go up even more when Chuseok, Korea’s harvest festival, comes around.” The fixed budget per meal for each student is about 2,000 won for schools in Cheongju.


By Choi Mo-ran [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]
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