Feeding hungry kids in (Korean) schools

Over the last few days the New Zealand Herald has run an investigation on feeding hungry students in New Zealand schools which prompted me to write about lunchtime in a Korean school. I taught English at a boys’ middle school (years 8,9, 10) in the Republic of Korea for a couple of years and always found lunchtime a highly fascinating  affair. Korean lunchtimes were so different from my own experiences where lunch at school mainly consisted of a home-made sandwiches, a couple of pieces of fruit, yoghurt and some sort of’ treat with the odd visit to the school tuckshop thrown in for good measure.

Lunchtime in a Korean classroom. The blue tag on the students' uniforms is his name with the colour signifying his grade level. In this photo are grade 2/year 9 students. (photo by author)

It is fact universally acknowledged that the most powerful person in a Korean school is not the principal but the lunch lady. In a culture where  ‘have you eaten?’ is the common greeting  the guardians of the daily déjeuner are the ones to be feared and obeyed by all.

Anywhere in the world what’s on the menu is the main determining factor as to whether the day is going to turn out good or bad for the average teenage boy. Indeed the last 5-10 minutes of fourth period were inevitably a write-off  in my school as the students studied the clock intently waiting for the bell to chime.

Though many Korean schools have cafeterias, the school I worked at did not due to the large size of its roll and lack physical space. Therefore the students at my school ate their lunch, which is prepared at a kitchen on site, in their classrooms. When the bell sounded at 12.30 the sounds of the mad rush of 1,100 boys trying to be the first in queue amongst the 40 competitors in his class and the lunch carts be wheeled speedily to their destinations were heard reverberating throughout the building. In general students tend to serve themselves although obviously food  is more strictly supervised by the teachers with the little ones. The students bring in their own chopsticks and spoon set  however the serving plates are from the school.

The lunch crush and another cultural difference, students wear special 'slippers' rather than shoes inside school. (photo by the author)

One of the benefits of a mono-cultural society such as Korea is that there is no need to make special accommodations for religious or cultural dietary restrictions because everyone eats the same thing. Thus the average lunch Korean school lunch consists of three staples; rice, soup and kimchi along with a selection of two to three side dishes with some meat thrown in somewhere for good measure. The quality of the lunches ranged from the delightful chicken ginseng soup, Samgyetang, which is served on the lunar holiday Boknal, through to the dish I affectionately termed ‘tentacle spew.’  Nevertheless I give huge props to the kitchen staff for pumping out nearly 1,200 lunches for staff and students on the smell of an oily rag.

Students serve each other lunch. This school had no heating in the corridors which made February a rather unpleasant month for students and staff alike. (photo by author)

The students and teaching staff pay for their lunches on a monthly basis. The lunches cost roughly 40USD  (back in 2007) however kids from poor families get their lunches paid for by the state. As a result, Korean lunches really are an egalitarian affair with everyone from the principal down to the youngest student eating the same thing and no one is the wiser as to how the lunch is paid for. It is a sad fact that for some students in my school lunch represented their only proper meal of the day, as I saw a few students sent home by their home room teacher with leftovers from lunch in their backpacks at the end of the day.

A Korean school lunch (photo by author)

On the day I took these pictures the students were ecstatic as one of their favorite foods, the Japanese dish donkkaseu, was on the menu.  The lunch also consisted of the compulsory rice, kimchi, soup (watery bean sprout) and some sort of dried seaweed as the side dish. After lunch the serving utensils and food trays are taken back to the kitchen by the students to be washed by the kitchen staff.  The students seemed to enjoy their lunch that day because the sound of 1,100 boys groaning that they had eaten too much could be heard well into fifth and sixth period.

Unsurprisingly no such sounds are ever heard on tentacle day.

I’m not sure this model would be releasable in the New Zealand school system as we’ve definitely gone down the route of bring your own lunch with tuckshops/lunch orders available as back-stop but nevertheless an interesting insight into a different country’s school culture.

2 thoughts on “Feeding hungry kids in (Korean) schools

Add yours

  1. Very interesting. Good writing too, very vivd! I have been trying to write a bit and having things about Korea when I haven’t been there is tough, thank goodness for the internet and your blog. It will help immensly.


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