Free school lunch paradox

The United States is still the destination for many immigrants and they continue to arrive with hopes of finding the “American Dream.” The American Dream, according to these immigrants, is being provided with equal opportunity in achieving wealth to buy houses, cars and a better education for their children when they work hard enough, although they may lack higher education and a personal network. No immigrants come to the U.S. looking for free school lunches.

A free school lunch program is one of the main subjects of contention in Korea these days. France, too, is restless with their free school lunch program. France had been offering special menus without pork on top of their ordinary menus, in respect of the significant numbers of their Muslim immigrant population. However, a recent court ruling decreed that schools do not need to offer two different menus on religious grounds, since religion and education are separated under the constitution. The ruling has aroused Muslim parents in opposition. Free school lunch programs have always been an annoyance to the French.

The U.S. also has a free school lunch program. It is a program that costs the federal government $100 billion a year. Each school district administers the program and the cost is reimbursed by the federal government. The program, however, only benefits poor children who may be prone to childhood obesity due to an ill-balanced diet. At first, the “who pays, who benefits” controversy was raised by single parents and families without children whose tax dollars were equally subjected to pay for the free lunches, but the debate dissipated with a shared understanding that children are the future leaders of the country.

There is an understanding in the U.S. that children are not to blame for the poor condition of their families. To avoid possible self-confidence issues of children who receive free lunches, the program is successfully operated as a voucher system. In the voucher system, meal tickets are provided free of charge to those families in need, while the rest purchase the tickets. Since most families use this system, as it is more cost-effective and convenient for busy families, no one knows nor cares who receives the tickets for free and children are also careless about it.

I read a newspaper column a few days ago that argues that free school lunch is a right, based on an odd interpretation of the Republic of Korea’s Constitution number 31 stating that free lunch is implied as a part of compulsory education. The columnist argues that all children need to receive free school lunches in order to eliminate discrimination against those children receiving free lunches. This is to avoid having children grow into adulthood resenting their own country lamenting, “What did my country do for me?” due to humiliation arising from receiving free lunches for being needy. I must say President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is much more appropriate than “What did my country do for me?”

Currently in Korea (according to 2010-2013 figures), the student population has shrunk by 630,000, but provincial and local government expenditures on free school lunches have increased 2.5 times, from 970 billion won to 2.7 trillion won. In its place, education improvement facilities funds were cut by almost 1 trillion won. Processing food waste is costing tens of millions of won, while some media reports have found that the 200,000 won per month support that goes equally to the affluent was used by some to purchase luxury goods.

If this trend continues, the national treasury will soon disappear. Those in support of free school lunches constantly argue that more taxes to the rich will resolve the problem. I am reminded of President Ronald Reagan’s statement: “We cannot pull down the rich to help the poor. Both will fall at the end.” They argue for increasing the taxes to the rich and expanding the free school lunch program all the way to 11th graders. I would like to suggest that they study the causes of Greece’s economic downturn.

Everyone was poor when I was growing up as a child. My mother was always up early in the morning to pack my lunchbox. The humble meal she prepared was no fancy one by any means, but it was my mother’s love that fed me through it. I grew up not knowing whether a free lunch program is a right that I needed to defend.

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