Focus on quality of school lunch
Deep-fried funnel cake, canned spongy grapes, and processed and fried potato tots. This is what my daughters’ public school is serving this month for breakfast and lunch. Typical lunches in American schools include hamburgers or pizza with a canned vegetable, white bread and tinned fruit.
The food is highly processed, made in factories and shipped to school kitchens in bags, cans and boxes. Few school lunches include fresh fruits or vegetables. Most days, my daughters choose to bring their own food rather than eat the school lunch.
The disappointing evolution of the American school lunch program offers valuable lessons for South Korea as its capital city moves toward expanding its free lunch program. So far, politics has dominated the debate over the free school lunches.
Democratic Party members, who control the Seoul Metropolitan Council and the city education office, passed a bill in December 2010 that would provide free lunches to all elementary and middle school students, regardless of income.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, a member of the ruling Grand National Party, fought the bill, arguing that wealthy students don’t need free meals and the program will bankrupt the municipality. He even staked his political future on the outcome of this election. This liberal vs. conservative battle climaxed in a referendum, where voters were asked to choose universal free lunches or just provide them to students in the bottom 50 percent income bracket.
The referendum failed to spark the interest of voters. Only one in four voters cast ballots, far short of the 33.3 percent required to make the election count. On Aug. 26, Oh resigned to take responsibility for his failure. A new mayor will be elected in October.
With this referendum nullified, the battle over free lunches now moves to the courts. However it appears that Seoul will expand its free lunch program sooner or later. When that happens, I hope the city government will put politics aside and effectively implement the expansion and not follow the path of the U.S.
The U.S. has provided school lunches, including free and reduced price meals for low-income children, for over a half century. The primary purpose of the program has been to support the health of students and thereby improve their academic performance. The federal program also became a way to support the country’s agriculture industry through the purchase of milk, cheeses and grains.
But as costs and usage increased, the school lunch program faced the challenge of buying huge quantities of food at low prices, which reduced quality. Because of low prices and easy availability, corn-based products and heavily-processed food became a staple of school lunches and the American diet.
American children have been overfed and undernourished, causing the obesity rate among children to skyrocket. Between 1980 and 2008, the prevalence of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 years jumped from 6.5 percent to 19.6 percent, and the rate among those aged 12 to 19 rose from 5 percent to 18.1 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The explosion in obesity has been linked to an increase in childhood diabetes and other chronic health problems.
In response to the obesity epidemic, federal, state and local governments and school districts have recently been trying a variety of initiatives to improve the quality of school lunches and breakfasts, and to encourage exercise and healthy eating. These efforts include reducing the use of processed food, increasing the use of fresh locally-grown produce, food made with whole grains and dishes made in school kitchens rather than reheated from freezer bags or cans.
The transition has been slow and difficult because it requires a major cultural shift and it costs more money. It will take many years to halt the obesity epidemic and overhaul the way we feed our children at school and at home.
South Korea is in a much better position on this issue. While obesity rates have increased among children on the peninsula, Korean children are still generally healthier than American children. It is no surprise that school lunches are much healthier in Korea. Korean lunches typically consist of rice, soup, a protein that is either meat or tofu, and vegetables or fruit. These foods are minimally processed and generally low in fat.
The South Korean government has also launched programs to improve children’s health by reducing sugar and fat in children’s snacks, regulating fast-food advertising and even creating junk-food-free zones around schools. These are all smart approaches to keeping children healthy and worth public investment. Trying to reverse an obesity epidemic is much more expensive and difficult than preventing the problem.
In the coming weeks and months, public attention will shift from the school lunch issue to the by-election of Seoul mayor and next year’s general elections and a presidential poll. However, a larger debate over welfare policies will continue to loom large in the country. South Korean leaders should learn from the experience of the U.S. that implementing successful welfare programs is far from simple. Cost is a major challenge, even for the wealthiest nations.
The more important challenge is executing effective public policy. Whether it’s providing free lunch or college tuition aid, quality is more important than quantity. If expanding the free lunch program will result in poorer quality of food, all children will be harmed. Emotions and politics should not control decisions about important government programs.
Korean leaders should form nonpartisan committees to help guide major changes such as the expansion of the school lunch program. Then cooler heads will prevail and the outcome will be better for everyone.
Kim Myung-oak is a freelance writer in Colorado and co-author of “The New Korea: An Inside Look into South Korea’s Economic Rise” (AMACOM, 2010). She is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, writing about childhood poverty, education and anti-hunger programs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.