South Korea: Free School Meals Debate Sweeps the Nation

A serious debate on the free school meals system has swept South Korea this week, as a minority opposition party succeeded in passing a bill through parliament that expands free meal coverage. The bill has caused a huge backlash from the ruling Grand National Party which has called it a populist policy. The Korean public, which supported the idea several months ago, has rapidly turned against the bill as it has realized that free lunches means higher government spending.

There might be no politician who would oppose the idea of feeding starving students, at least in front of their voters. But the problem lies in the concept of a mandatory, universally free meal system that offers free food to every kid in school, including students who can afford school meals. Seoul’s mayor Oh Se-hoon has written about the issue on his blog, lambasting the concept as ‘a populist idea that ruins the nation’, and has challenged the opposition lawmakers to an open debate.

민주당 시의원들의 이 망국적인 포퓰리즘 전략을 어떻게 막아낼 수 있을지 정치인으로서의 책임감으로 가슴은 점점 더 답답해져 갔습니다…선거 때 ‘무상급식'이 달콤한 반짝 효과를 거뒀을지는 몰라도 성숙한 우리 사회는 이제 부자 아이들에게까지 지급되는 전면 무상급식에 반대하는 데 힘을 실어주고 있습니다[…]무상급식은 결국 세금급식이요, 부자급식이며, 보편적복지가 아닌 무차별적 복지입니다. 게다가 아직 서울시의 많은 학교는 무상급식을 할만한 물적, 인적 조직이 전혀 갖춰져있지 않습니다.

I feel choked from the heavy responsibility. I have as a lawmaker, as I ponder on ways to block this nation-ruining, populist strategy proposed by the Democratic Party’s city councils…The ‘free meal’ card may have worked briefly during the (summer) election, but mature Korean society is leaning towards blocking a full-scale free meal system that feeds even rich kids. […] The free meal is actually a ‘tax-meal’ and a ‘rich meal’. [Note: referring to the facts that the meal is paid for by people’s taxes and it is given even to rich kids.] It is not universal care, but indiscriminate welfare. Furthermore, many schools in Seoul are not ready for this in terms of infrastructure and human resources.

Photo by Raspberry Sitcom, Used with Permission

Blogger Raspberry Sitcom, after comparing the Korean case with other developed countries such as Finland and Denmark which are famous for their top-notch welfare systems, argues that even though she is against a radical shift to an all-out welfare system, the current situation has to be adjusted. Under the current selective free meal system, poor students who are unable to afford school meals often choose to skip lunch instead of risking public embarrassment in front of the entire class, as they have to submit papers proving their low income status to teachers to apply for free meals.

우리나라에서 무상 급식의 비율은 전체의 17% 수준이다. 이는 선진국의 비율에 비하면 현저하게 낮은 수치이다. 그렇다고 이것을 한 번에 100%가까이 끌어올리는 무상 급식을 당장 시행하기에는 우리나라의 실정을 고려하지 못한 이념에 치우친 주장이 될 수밖에 없다[…]저소득층만 대상으로 급식비를 지원하는 것이 더 타당해 보일 수 있다. 하지만 현재까지 이루어져왔던 저소득층 시혜적 복지는 아이들의 자존감을 지켜주지 못했다. 스스로 가난을 증명해야만 가난을 인정하는 현실은 안타까울 뿐이다[…]시혜 대상자를 선별하려고 하다가 교묘한 틈새로 빠져나가 형편이 되는데도 급식지원을 받았다거나, 실제 어려운 상황임에도 급식 지원을 받지 못해 밥을 먹지 못하는 상황인 아이들도 있다.

Increasing the free meal coverage to 100 percent from the current 17 percent all at once is a far-fetched idea with no serious regard to the current situation. […] Though it seems like a more rational idea to offer free meals selectively to kids from low income households, the current system has failed to protect the kids’ dignity. It is painful to watch kids handing in papers themselves proving how poor they are. […] During the selection process, the free meal often goes to someone deviously using loopholes to get the meal at no cost, while kids in need fail to get the meal.

What worries people is the tremendous budget spending required for the expansion of the free meal system. It is assumed that about 70 billion Korean Won (US $61 million) which takes up to 0.4 percent of Seoul city's yearly budget may be needed to feed all. On the Naver Q&A forum Netzen ID: a cwj8842 comments:

무조건적인 무상급식은 한편으로는 평등이라는 면에서 보면 옳은 것으로 보일 수 있으나, 이는 오히려 평등이라는 이름하에 불평등을 초래할 수 있다고 생각됩니다, 민주당에서 무조건적이고 전면적인 무상급식을 의결하는 것은 현실을 무시한, 정말로 사회주의를 꿈꾸는 몰상식한 처사라고 생각됩니다, 무상급식을 의결한 당신들이 먼저 의정활동비란 명목으로 받아 가는 돈을(물론 의원으로 일하는 동안의 돈이죠) 모두 무상급식비로 기부(?)하는 모습으로 모범을 한번 보여주시죠.

An unconditional free meal system may look justifiable when seen from the angle of equality. But it increases inequality under the grand name of equality. The Democratic Party passing the bill for unconditional, all-out free meals is an absurd socialist move with no regard for our reality. You people who have approved of the bill [referring to the politicans], you need to set a good example by donating all the money you have received for passing the bill on executing the bill.

Photo by Raspberry Sitcom, Used with Permission

Twitter user @Kennedian3 from Daum's Agora stresses that the idea is far from being a populist one, but is rather a move that can benefit the next generation in the long run.

(의무급식은) 우리 아이들의 위화감과 정서적 상처도 줄일 수 있습니다. 실제로 제 트위터에는 지방에서 교사로 계신 분이 아이들의 3분의 1만 급식지원을 받는데, 일부 부모들이 아이가 낙인 찍힐까봐 급식지원 신청을 하지 않는다고 소식을 전해주셨습니다. 그리고 친환경 식단으로 우리 아이들 건강을 지켜서 장기적으로 각종 성인병 예방해서 미래의 의료비용, 즉 복지비용 지출을 줄일 수 있습니다[…]그런 면에서 의무급식을 잘 운용하면 오시장이 걱정하는 과도한 복지 지출이 추후 발생할 소지를 오히려 현저히 줄일 수 있습니다.

[The mandatory free meal system] can lessen the sense of inequality and the emotional wounds that our children are left with. A teacher in one provincial area told me via Twitter that only one third of children are getting free meals from school. And some parents choose not to apply for the meal because of worries that their kids may get stigmatized (for being poor). If we provide kids with a healthy diet through this system, we can salvage kids’ health and prevent them from developing morbid obesity, and eventually reduce health spending in the future. If things go as intended, we can actually decrease the excessive budget spending Mayor Oh worries about.

Kennedian3 later added that what Koreans should be concerned about is not ‘populism in the welfare sector’ but ‘populism in the development sector’, pointing to the city governments’ astronomical spending on building stadiums citizens don’t have access to, local airports that nobody uses and gigantic government buildings for no specific reasons.


  • Being free sounds good but it would really affect the budget of the government. Feeding these kids would require huge amount of budgets which could be spent on other projects.

  • […] 8, 2011 bingbing Leave a comment Go to comments The Lefties in Korea have managed to push through a bill that provides free lunches to school students. But as is the case with free health care, the quality of the lunches has – pardon my French […]

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