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[Weekender] [K-School] From lobster to rose tteokbokki, Korean school food continues to evolve

Korea spends W7.53tr a year on free school lunches nationwide, despite programs rocky start

Dec. 9, 2023 - 16:01 By Park Jun-hee
The menu of a school lunch is designed to cater to children’s preferences. The photographed meal showcases rose tteokbokki (bottom left), a popular snack made of gochujang blended with cream, and fishcake soup (bottom right). (Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education)”

At around noon on a Friday, hundreds of students filed through the cafeteria at Changdeok Girls’ Middle School in Jung-gu, central Seoul, as they took a school canteen food tray, spoon and chopsticks, quickly scanning the day’s lunch menu offerings.

One at a time, the students loaded their trays with fish cake soup, bibimbap, chocolate breadsticks and a mango popsicle for dessert. These school lunches resembled delicious-looking home-cooked meals.

“It’s not mass-produced, reheated food. (The school) provides nutritious yet delicious lunches every day with different options to meet the dietary needs of students. (The lunches) also go easy on the salt,” Kim Young-hwa, the principal of Changdeok Girls’ Middle School, told The Korea Herald.

To make it all happen, the school cafeteria personnel arrive early in the morning to open the cafeteria and prepare the meals, Kim said, adding that good food is just as important as studying for growing kids.

A school lunch tray containing cheesy baked lobster tail, beef spaghetti in tomato sauce, corn soup and a salad at Bisan Middle School in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province (AnyangGwacheon Office of Education)

School meals can be “culinary delights” for the students. For example, Bisan Middle School in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province, offered cheesy baked lobster tails, beef spaghetti in tomato sauce, corn soup, and brownie tarts as a special treat for its students. The school had invited a chef for the “Chef is Coming” event, according to the Anyang Gwacheon Office of Education on Wednesday.

School meals for all

South Korea is one of only a few countries in the world that provide free lunches to all students in compulsory education from kindergarten through high school to ensure they have access to healthy food and build healthy eating habits without having to pay.

Other countries that provide universal free school meals include Sweden, which serves meals to all students aged 7 to 16, and Finland, the first country in the world to provide free school meals to children between the ages of 6 and 16 since 1948.

The initiative to expand free lunches from just one province to all school children in Korea, however, got off to a rocky start.

A school lunch from Jeju Island is composed of braised beef short ribs, seasoned vegetables and acorn jelly offered as side dishes to rice and seaweed soup. (Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Office of Education)
A school lunch from Jeju Island (Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Office of Education)

Schools in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, were the first to begin the universal free lunch program in 2011. In the same year, the scheme was also floated for schools in Seoul but it was thrown into a heated political debate with Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon calling it a “populist policy” at the time and eventually stepping down after losing a referendum on the issue.

For free school lunches, the central government, via education offices, covers around 67 percent of the cost and the local governments pay for the remaining 33 percent, although the numbers differ based on region.

Ten years after sparking a political storm, the universal project has now been extended to encompass all elementary to high school students in 2021, and to kindergarten students in 2022.

A school lunch from Jeju Island (Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Office of Education)
A school lunch from Jeju Island (Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Office of Education)

As of 2022, 19,713 schools nationwide fed 5.85 million students per day, according to the latest data compiled by the Ministry of Education.

In 2022, the ministry allocated around 7.53 trillion won ($5.58 billion) for its school meal budget, which includes the cost of operating the service, the food and nutrition staff, the ingredients, as well as the equipment and facilities, since making fresh and balanced meals requires investment, according to a senior official in the Student Health Department at the ministry. A similar budget was allocated for this year, the official added.

Care on the menu

Behind the national cafeteria service are a total of 83,504 school lunch personnel, with nutrition educators, nutritionists and cooks deployed to schools across the nation. The staff are also educated on how to form correct eating habits and understand the food production and consumption system.

In particular, nutritionists are the ones who carefully plan each meal, making sure to adhere to strict dietary guidelines and nutrient targets for all students, but also ensuring the meals are appetizing.

Each lunch must contain the components of a healthy diet to give school-aged children the opportunity to learn about healthy eating patterns. The meals also aim to cultivate the foundation for healthy eating habits, which the ministry explained would “set the stage for lifelong nutrition and health,” noting that the meals are “healthier than what students would buy elsewhere.”

To make it onto the school lunch menu, the lunch tray must contain protein, a component that fuels cells to have the energy one needs to stay active; vitamins A and C, which play a crucial role in immune function and growth and development; thiamine, which can be found in pork and fish; riboflavin, or vitamin B2, which is one of the eight B vitamins found in food like green vegetables; calcium and iron.

A school lunch created in a cooking competition (Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education)

Portion sizes are individualized based on students’ ages to provide appropriate portions and calories to students.

In addition, schools use locally sourced and seasonal ingredients to treat students to fresh meals in a variety of colors and flavors.

Such goals are also in line with the country’s Special Act on Safety Management of Children’s Dietary Lifestyle, which is aimed at contributing to promoting children’s health by prescribing the necessary steps for safe and nutritionally balanced foods to help prevent diet-related diseases, including obesity.

A school lunch created in a cooking competition (Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education)

While the most popular type of menu differs by school, students tend to prefer noodles; fried chicken; stir-fried meat; suyuk or simmered pork; tteokbokki -- rice cakes cooked in a red, spicy sauce; and bibimbap, a bowl of rice topped with vegetables, according to the ministry.

To cater to the diverse tastes and dietary preferences of students, schools sometimes add new flavors to the regular menus by making dishes such as sandwiches, spaghetti and pizza so that students can widen their culinary horizons.

For parents wondering what their children eat at school, schools upload photos of meals to their official website on a daily basis. They also send letters to parents about school life, including information to ensure parents know what kind of food their children are eating every day.

This article is the first in a series on South Korea’s public education system today, its distinctive features and cultural aspects, which continue to the present day, and the stories behind them. -- Ed.