Monday, March 8, 2010

Grassroots Politics in Seoul: Free School Lunches Movement

Free school lunches movement becoming a key issue of June 2 regional elections : National : Home
Lee Chang-rim, a 33-year-old candidate for Seoul’s Dobong District Council who has decided to run in the June regional elections, is a ‘citizens’ candidate.’ Lee does not belong to any political party. His support base consists of grassroots groups like Korean Womenlink, Hansalim, the National Association of Parents for True Education, the Saenggeul Jageun Library and the Dobong Citizens‘ Association. Lee said, “In Dobong, grassroots groups have maintained a tradition of staying active in their own areas and then running a ‘citizens’ candidate’ in every local election.”

This is Lee’s second attempt at a regional election. In 2006, he ran for district council, emphasizing the issue of free school lunches. The response from the community was enthusiastic. Middle and high school students without the right to vote took pictures of menu boards with their cell phones and sent text massages saying, “Chang-rim, please change this.” Student parents patted his shoulders and said, “It is a really great thing that you are doing.” But in the end, he was unable to overcome the Grand National Party’s forceful wind. Lee said, “In the regional elections over the years, we have constantly seen the wind of centralized politics sweeping through, contrary to the intention behind introducing the local government system, which was to spread grassroots democracy.”

The year I arrived in Korea, the free school lunches movement was in full swing. I haven't heard much about it again until this story from today's 한겨래 (Hankyoreh). I don't know what it's like at most schools, but the student meals were awful stuff at my high school. The food cooked for faculty and staff was not much better. This year, because of the popularity of the issue and parents and students complaining, the school has hired one of its own faculty members to be the nutritionist and plan meals. So families and employees have had their say, and the nutritionist has a rather significant obligation to do well.

We have healthier (smaller) portion sizes, less 반찬 (banchan: side dishes which are an important part to Korean food culture and a good meal must have them) and higher quality food. This should result in less waste and less expense while creating better health. A win all around. Believe it or not, some teachers are complaining because of the healthier portions. That's old school Korean thinking: more food is better. I don't get it, but it's part of the food culture and tied to feelings about food and wealth. But you can't really argue with better, healthier food. For now, the new system is working. I hope they adopt it permanently.

Anyway, it appears as if the Grand National Party is losing its popularity here. It's hard to tell because Koreans don't talk politics like Americans do. So, I don't ask. And the mainstream English newspapers' coverage of political news is lacking. Well, The Hankyoreh is very political, but it's a left wing paper. It's hard to judge what moderate Koreans think about these things. But conservatives are not popular here except with the oldest generations who remain rather staunchly conservative on principle. (Meaning they hate everything equally.) Korea's conservative movement, like the one in the US, suffers from a lack of new ideas and lack of desire to treat younger generations and their explicit progressive spirit with any visible public respect.

Hopefully, Lee Chang Rim can get elected. A young, progressive candidate fighting for students' rights (by proxy, parents' rights) is pretty cool grassroots politics here.

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