Support for needy cut to fund lunches for all

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Support for needy cut to fund lunches for all

In 2009, the Jungnang District Office, in one of Seoul’s poorest neighborhoods, began providing free dinners to its low-income middle and high school students who risked going hungry.

The district office funds the 600 million won ($524,000) program based on reports submitted by schools on the number of their students in need of support, with each meal costing between 3,100 won and 3,300 won. Today, the district feeds 1,780 needy students under the program.

But the program, along with a host of others that support the district’s low-income residents, are likely to be axed starting next year because of the funds needed to pay for the mandatory free school lunch program that was approved by the Democratic Party-controlled Seoul Metropolitan Council and was upheld by voters in the August city-wide referendum.

The district, which ranks 23rd among 25 district offices in fiscal self-reliance at 31.5 percent, says it needs the money used for the dinner program to pay for the school lunches for all elementary school and first-year middle school students, as required by the city ordinance.

“There’s nowhere else to secure the budget for the free school lunch program because all other expenses have already been reduced,” said Yoo Kyeong-ae, an official from the Jungnang District Office. “If the budget plan for the free lunch program gets confirmed, we have to inform middle and high schools that the free dinner program for needy students will be suspended.”

According to Jungnang District Office, about 10.6 billion won is needed to provide free school lunches for 180 days to the district’s 20,115 elementary school and 3,870 first-year middle school students. Under the free school lunch ordinance, Jungnang District is to pay for 20 percent of the program, which is about 2.2 billion won next year. In addition to the 600 million won from the school dinner program, the district is using 1.6 billion won cut from other academic programs.

Making matters worse, the district’s annual budget for next year has been reduced by 4.3 billion won to 324.8 billion won because it expects a drop in property tax revenue thanks to the weak real estate market and a smaller grant from the Seoul Metropolitan Government, which amounted to 84 billion won this year.

Aside from cutting the school dinner program, the district is cutting back on operations and office expenses by 20 percent as well as downsizing other projects.

The district’s children’s center, an after-school child care program for low-income families, as well as plans to improve educational facilities are set to be suspended or face steep cuts, among other programs, to address the budget shortfall.

“It’s very sad that we have to suspend so many programs because of the free school lunch program and the weak economy,” said Moon Byeong-kwon, head of the Jungnang District Office.

Experts criticized the Seoul Metropolitan Government for pushing ahead with a policy they characterized as unfeasible, citing Jungnang District’s case as an example of what happens when a policy fails to consider the individual fiscal standings for each of Seoul’s districts.

“To provide free lunch to all elementary school students including those who can actually afford it, the students who really need the support and are in need of dinner will suffer,” said Cho Dong-geun, an economics professor at Myongji University. “[The government] should come up with a measure so that each district office can efficiently use its budget.”

By Jeon Young-sun, Choi Mo-ran []
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