On Free Lunches

Seoul is currently all abuzz with what I’m told is its first-ever referendum: the issue of free school lunches. Problem is, I’m not sure people have considered even the most basic facts before forming an opinion.

Let me open by saying I am all for free school lunches. In both Korea and the U.S., there are some kids who, for various reasons, would literally have nothing to eat all day if they weren’t provided a lunch by the school. If we, as a society, can help these kids by giving them one meal a day, we must.

Now, in Seoul, where this issue is being debated, how many children are in this kind of situation, or something remotely close to it? I’m thinking 5% would be the absolute high end.

Here’s the thing: Seoul already provides free lunches for the bottom 35%.

The referendum offers a choice between:

A) The City Council’s already-passed program to provide free lunches for all kids, 100%.

B) The Mayor’s proposal to overturn this program and provide free lunches just to the bottom 50%.

If fewer than 1/3 of eligible voters cast their vote, the referendum will fail, and the City Council’s program will stand (option A).

So actually, both options seem horribly wasteful from my perspective, by providing 1900% and 900% more free lunches than truly needed, respectively. Clearly, this debate is not about starving kids. So WHAT THE HECK are we talking about?

The proponents of the 100% plan say that it is needed to prevent kids from discriminating against each other because of family income levels.


Okay, let me think about that for one second. First, when I was in elementary school, I paid for my lunch with a ticket, a little blue piece of paper. Every month or so, parents bought a stack of them at full price, or at a discounted price, or got them for free, and kids used them to get their lunches. Every kid did the same thing in order to get their lunch, no kid could be like, “Oh hey look, Johnny just got his lunch for free. He must be poor.”

Simple and effective system, right? Did that stop kids from figuring out who’s rich and who’s not?

Uh, no.

There are a lot of things kids don’t understand until they’re older, but the socioeconomic hierarchy thing is drilled into us pretty early, intentionally or not, even in the U.S. In Korea? I bet kids understand their place in the world within hours of emerging from the womb. Come on.

Kids see things. The young brain is a pattern recognizing machine. Okay, say you take away this one signal of poorness (and it’s not replaced by, say, rich parents giving their kids organic, free-range, grass-fed unicorn sandwiches in their home lunches). That just leaves cars, vacations & travel, hagwons, toys & games, haircuts, shoes, cell phones (and apps!), jewelry, calculators & electronic dictionaries, iPods, computers… well, that’s all I can come up with in the 2 minutes I spent thinking about it.

Some of these things may not apply to Korean schoolchildren (I didn’t attend school in Korea and don’t have kids, so I can’t be sure), but the rest will serve as very visible indicators of wealth.

And kids notice.

So if kids discriminating against each other is really what the 100% camp is worried about, free lunches really aren’t going to fix that. Might as well go with 5%.


Facts in this post come from this AP article: South Koreans to vote on free school lunch program

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