A moral imperativeSchool lunch subsidies have become a hot potato issue again. The Gyeonggi Province administration reignited the debate with its recent announcement that it can no longer afford to subsidize free school lunches and won’t include the program in next year’s budget.
The government of Incheon, another major municipality near the capital, will continue subsidizing free lunches for elementary schools, but scrapped plans to expand the program into middle schools beginning next year.
The issue will likely become a major campaign topic in next year’s local elections as the Gyeonggi administration is currently being led by the ruling party and the Incheon government is now in the hands of the opposition.
Those opposed to the free school lunch program state their argument on two grounds: First, the economics, and secondly, moral concerns. Opponents argue that the program’s expenses are significant for local governments, eating up funds badly needed elsewhere, and even undermining regional development. They also worry that the young generation being fed with free meals in schools could grow used to getting a free ride, and so the program could encourage moral hazards when they become adults.
Politically, opponents argue there are only a small number of countries that offer free lunches to students all through elementary, middle and high school, and the program here is just reckless populism, designed to buy votes.
These arguments all are reasonable to some extent. But, in fact, the universally free school meal program is a good idea on economic, moral and social grounds.
Economically, publicly funded school meals are supervised to ensure they are supplied with eco-friendly, chemical-free and locally-produced ingredients. The stable supply of public school lunches can play an important factor in the farming and food markets.
Free school meals also can help ease household budgets, and that can stimulate consumer spending. School meals also generate jobs in the areas of food safety supervision and production.
Supplying decent food to all young students is also a moral obligation for the adult generation. Ensuring the happiness of all should be prized at least as highly as pursuing economic development for some or prioritizing investment for the future.
It is tough to say just how big and advanced an economy must become to afford free school meals for all. Instead, we should insist on growing a big enough economy. With the aging of our society, by the year 2040 there will be just four economically active Korean adults for each one retiree.
Free school meals can be considered a pre-paid token for the young generation’s future burdens. Free school meals, therefore, is a moral investment by today’s generation toward the future.
Whether one supports or opposes universal free school meals, all are concerned about the country’s future. The dispute over school lunch derives from a lack of social consensus on the collection and utilization of taxes in general.
What is more urgent: Damming and dredging work to control flooding and water quality in the four major rivers, or efforts to fix the low fertility rate and foster young talent? We all agree that social polarization generates social conflict. For now, it is not the poor that supports free school meals and the rich that oppose them. I just hope the arguments on this subject remain political and do not devolve into generational and regional conflict. The issue of the free school meal program should be given meaning through policy prioritization and the thorough supervision of its budget, and not argued in terms of for and against.
The problem is not whether we should continue supplying free school meals, but whether it is the right thing to do. The free school meal program is not a simple policy; it is worthy for its moral value.
Translation by the Korea JoonAng Daily staff.
*The author is a sociology professor at Kyungpook National University.
By Kim Gyu-won