Feed our children
South Gyeongsang Gov. Hong Joon-pyo declared that his municipal government will no longer provide its local education office with funding for free school meals next year. The decision has refueled the debate over the universal free school lunch program, which is now considered part of the state’s compulsory education system. Some are suggesting that the program should be readjusted to a selective system that benefits children of low-income families amid concerns over the worsening fiscal woes of local governments and district education offices.
Our children usually eat at least one meal per day at school during 15 years of mandatory schooling. Food at school becomes a key part of their everyday life, providing the minimum nutrients needed to keep the bodies of our future generation healthy. School meals should therefore be the joint responsibility of the state and local governments, as well as the people.
School food should be considered mandatory based on Article 31 of the Constitution and Article 9 of the School Food Law. It should be regarded as part of the rights of students. However, some in the adult generation have turned this basic right into a cheap political issue. Adults wrangling over what children are legally entitled to is baffling to our kids.
School food given to children according to the social and economic rank of their parents could leave lasting scars. Selective school food distribution is the wrong educational policy. The system and political direction could contribute to social discrimination.
To be excluded from the free food program, children must present a copy of their public health insurance policy and documentation of their parent’s monthly insurance payments. Those eligible for free school meals must turn in proof that their parents receive the basic allowances provided to the lowest-income group or identify if they have a single parent.
If any of this information is leaked to their peers, children at a tender age could feel humiliated or lose confidence. More than half of students fell behind in monthly payments when schools began to charge for lunches. Homeroom teachers had to ask students or parents to pay their bills, also putting them in an awkward situation. Meal-stealing became rampant because students, for various reasons, ate lunches without paying.
The response from parents and students since school lunches became free for everyone was consistent. Parents said they were helped by the extra savings from the monthly school meal relief and students were happy they could all eat without worrying about paying. Families can always do with any help in household economy amid job insecurity, an irregular work force, and the burden of private education costs.
Free meals for all students during mandatory school also means the benefits go to both children of the wealthiest and poorest people. The principle of equality elevates common educational values and contributes to social unity. Some complain that children of the rich should not enjoy the same benefits. But school food should be regarded equal to public schooling in that it must be provided for free so that children can at least have a middle school education. If wealthy people are uncomfortable about enjoying the same benefits, they can willingly pay more taxes or make donations to their school to enhance the quality of the food.
The debate over the universal school lunch program reached a social agreement and made the election agenda in 2010. Yet the debate is being renewed for political purposes. These people are not concerned for our future generation. There is an old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” A child’s needs should be in the interest of all communities, but adults in our country are saying they cannot afford to give children one meal.
The government should legally include school food in the mandatory education law so that the issue can no longer be challenged. It is the country’s duty to see that each member of our future generation receives the necessary care and education from birth to high school graduation. Our well-being and welfare policies will one day lie in the hands of these growing children. This talk about budgeting could backfire on us.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a teacher at Gyeonggi Mobile Science High School and head of the Gyeonggi faction of the eco-friendly school meal campaign headquarters.
By Koo Hee-hyon