Plug being pulled on free lunches in schools

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Plug being pulled on free lunches in schools

Local governments that championed free school lunches for all students are now considering scaling back the welfare program or even scrapping it.

Incheon recently decided to call off its plan to expand free school lunches into middle schools, which was supposed to begin next year. The city is providing free lunches at elementary schools.

The city had a debt of 9.4 trillion won ($8.38 billion) as of last December. It would have cost the city an additional 60 billion won a year to extend free meals to its middle schools.

For this year, Incheon earmarked 66.9 billion won for free meals at elementary schools.

“The city’s financial woes are serious,” said an official on the education policy team at the Incheon Metropolitan Government, who noted the city has “no room to spend more on free lunches.” Incheon has many expenses on the horizon including next year’s Asian Games.

“Unless we get funded by the central government, it will be difficult for the city to expand the free lunch program to cover middle schools,” he said.

The Gyeonggi Provincial Government, headed by Governor Kim Moon-soo, was the first local government to announce it would scrap its entire subsidy for free lunches in the province.

By doing so, the Gyeonggi government will save 86 billion won next year. The provincial government said enormous budget deficits were predicted if spending wasn’t cut.

“[Many local governments] are now financially troubled because they have kept spending without calculating their budget limits,” said Cho Dong-geun, a professor of economics at Myongji University.

The issue of free school lunches came to a head in the political arena around the time of the 2010 local government elections.

It was the main pledge of the main opposition Democratic Party, but the ruling Saenuri Party also started waving the free lunch standard.

According to the JoongAng Ilbo, 80 percent of all the candidates running for office in 2010 supported free school meals.

But three years is an eternity in both Korean politics and in terms of spending by local governments.

In a survey conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo of 17 metropolitan government offices, six offices, including Incheon and North Gyeongsang, said they will either freeze or reduce the scale of free lunches next year, all citing budget woes.

“North Gyeongsang’s budget for this year amounts to 5.52 trillion won,” said an official at the budget office at the North Gyeongsang Provincial Government. “And 30 percent of the budget being is spent on welfare programs including the free lunches.”

The official noted that with a stagnant local economy, the provincial government will soon have to “consider freezing or reducing the budget for school lunches next year.”

Expanding the program has been ruled out.

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