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Free school lunches, day care: universal welfare or populist gifts by Seoul mayor?

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced Monday that students at all private and public schools in Seoul will receive free school lunches starting from 2021, extending the provision to high schools and private schools at an annual cost of 700 billion won ($615 million)

Just a day before, Park had revealed a plan to make all day care centers -- both private and public -- free of charge starting next year. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has set aside a total of 2.4 trillion won for the program for the next five years.

The mayor from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s welfare policies have been criticized by some as a populist agenda aimed at the next presidential election. Some, on the other hand, say free lunch meals are a basic right that should be enjoyed by all schoolchildren. 

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (Yonhap)
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (Yonhap)


The once-heated debate over free school meals -- some conservative politicians had called for a scheme in which the expansion of the free meal provision excluded children from wealthier families -- cost former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon his position in 2011. The conservative mayor resigned after the failure of his campaign to end free lunches for all elementary and middle school students.

The city of Seoul started providing free school lunches to public elementary school students in 2011, soon after Park took office. In 2014, the free school lunch program was extended to all public middle schools in Seoul as well.

With the newly introduced measures introduced Monday, all elementary, middle and high schools in Seoul, both public and private, will provide free school lunches starting from 2021, Park said. The new scheme is to include some 320 high schools across the South Korean capital, along with 608 elementary schools and 390 middle schools.

“Our Constitution states that compulsory education shall be free of charge for all citizens,” Park said during a press conference Monday.

“Our free school lunch scheme is based on our Constitution, as lunches are also part of compulsory education. It’s not just about giving a free meal, but ensuring that our children are healthy while they are in school.”

The mayor also claimed that each parent will save some 800,000 won a year with the free lunch program. For next year, the unit price of a school meal has been set at 4,600 won.


(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, 15.3 percent of all high school students in Seoul, 39,354 in total, currently receive a state allowance for school lunches, as they live below the poverty line fixed at 60 percent of median income.

In order to receive the allowance, a student has to submit an application to his or her school. Park said some students do not apply for this allowance at all as they fear being stigmatized. “Once all meals become free, no one will have to apply for the lunch allowance,” he said.

“Our school children endure intense academic competition while in school. I hope they at least get to enjoy the basic rights they deserve during their mealtime.”

The free lunch program will be co-financed by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, Seoul Metropolitan Government and Seoul’s 25 district offices.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education will finance 50 percent of the entire budget, the Seoul Metropolitan Government 30 percent and each district office will be responsible for the remaining 20 percent.

The average financial independence rate of Seoul’s 25 district offices is 29.3 percent, meaning the new free lunch scheme may burden them with additional financial pressures.

Previous reports have shown that the offices have been struggling with the city’s welfare programs, including an increased allowance for child care and pension programs for the elderly, and have been demanding central government support.

Yoo Deok-yeol, the mayor of Seoul’s Dongdaemun-gu Office, on Monday said the central government should finance free lunches for school children.

“No district office is opposed to the idea of providing free lunches for students,” he said during a press conference at the city hall, alongside Park. “But I think the central government also needs to take charge. (The Education Ministry) is currently allocating a budget for free high school education, which starts next year, but it is refusing to acknowledge that lunches are also part of compulsory education.”

A number of politicians, including Rep. Hong Moon-pyo of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, have criticized Park’s welfare agenda, including the allowance for young job seekers, calling the provisions unrealistic, “populist” measures only aimed at winning the next presidential election.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)



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