Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has been fighting an uphill battle against the city council’s decision in favor of free lunches for all schoolchildren. The mayor, affiliated with the ruling Grand National Party, believes that it is a populist policy to provide lunch free of charge at primary schools regardless of the parents’ income levels. He demands free lunch be limited to those whose parents cannot afford to pay for the meal.
His belief is based on common sense: Given the city’s limited resources, poor children would eventually have greater benefits if well-to-do parents paid for lunch for their children. Nonetheless, the city council, which is under the control of the opposition Democratic Party, passed an ordinance in favor of free lunch for all schoolchildren.
Oh has recently started to gather signatures from eligible voters in Seoul as a first step in his campaign to have the decree rescinded in a popular vote. The mayor, who has bet his political future on the campaign, complains that opposition councilors, blindly faithful to their party’s policy, made deep cuts in spending on many welfare programs for the needy to finance free lunch for all schoolchildren.
The beleaguered mayor, whose campaign has yet to gain traction, now finds an unlikely ally ― soaring food prices. Foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza are working together with a sharp increase in the prices of food imports to jack up domestic food prices ahead of the March 2 back-to-school day.
By this time, each school should have fixed the lunch menu. But dieticians are still working on the menu, not knowing how much to spend on each of the food items they will need because their prices have soared. According to a recent survey by a metropolitan agency, pork has almost doubled in price and the cost of chicken has gained 23 percent, both year on year. The prices of other perishables have also gained ― 33 percent on average.
But the problem is that the sharp increases may prove to be just a foretaste of what is yet to come not only for schools but for the entire nation. The threat of “agflation,” or generalized inflation led by rises in increases in agricultural commodity prices, is worldwide.
Earlier this month, the World Bank said global food prices have reached “dangerous levels” and that their impact could worsen fragile political conditions in developing countries. Koreans are not likely to be spared the impact though it may be not as severe in Korea as in the Middle East and in Central Asia, in which, the World Bank said, social and political stability are vulnerable to inflated food prices.
True, it is storms, droughts and fires of catastrophic proportions that damaged food production in the world’s leading farming countries. But even in the absence of climate aberrations, it is not likely that food prices will regain stability anytime soon, given growing food demand in populous countries, such as China and India.
As such, it is reasonable to believe schools in Seoul will be hard pressed to finance free lunch in the years ahead. Their budgetary constraint will be relieved if the mayor successfully collects signatures from no less than 5 percent of eligible voters, or 418,000 Seoul residents, calls a referendum, puts his proposal to a vote and wins approval.
But it will be extremely difficult to undo what is already done, given human nature. How many would offer to vote for the mayor’s proposal and voluntarily relinquish the benefits that are already given to them? Chances are slim that the mayor will be able to make the free-lunch ordinance null and void. If so, the primary schools in Seoul will have to hold the bag, for which the opposition-affiliated councilors must be held accountable.