Government-sponsored school lunch programs have garnered attention from activists and policymakers for their potential to promote public health, sustainable diets, and food sovereignty. However, across country contexts, these programs often fall far short of their transformative potential. It is vital, then, to identify policies and organizing strategies that enable school lunch programs to be redesigned at the national scale. In this article, we use document analysis of historical newspapers and government data to examine the motivating factors and underlying conditions that allowed South Korea’s universal free, eco-friendly (UFEF) school lunch program to become a tool for advancing social justice and ecological goals at the national scale. We analyze the socio-historical evolution and current status of the Korean school lunch program, combining the multi-level perspective with insights from environmental sociology and critical food studies, in order to shed light on the factors that enabled the program to become an innovative niche and articulate the opportunities and challenges it now faces. We identify the state-sponsored creation of what we call “precautionary infrastructure” as a key anchoring mechanism between the school food niche and agri-food regime. Precautionary infrastructure includes new supply chains, certification standards, and sourcing policies that provide a stable market for eco-friendly farms and small-scale producers, while minimizing the environmental health risks of school lunch by delivering organic and pesticide-free ingredients to on-site kitchens that serve free lunches to all students. This analysis offers insight into how public school-lunch programs can become protected niches that help drive sustainability transitions within agri-food systems.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
In the Korean context “eco-friendly” refers to healthy and traditional foods that are either organic or pesticide-free.
The electronic system was established in 2010 to reduce the opportunity for corruption within the school lunch procurement system.
Universal free, eco-friendly
Programa Nacional de Alimentação Escolar
Korea integrated news database system
Korean Women Peasants Association
The National Agricultural Products Quality Management Services
Abelmann, N. 1996. Echoes of the past, epics of dissent: A South Korean social movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Allen, P., and J. Guthman. 2006. From “old school” to “farm-to-school”: Neoliberalization from the ground up. Agriculture and Human Values 23 (4): 401–415.
Bak, H.J. 2012. Public perceptions of the risk of BSE and the risk-avoidance behavior in Korea. The Journal of Rural Society 22 (1): 311–341.
BBC Korea. 2019. Why are non-permanent school workers striking?. https://www.bbc.com/korean/news-48849581 Accessed May 2020.
Bui, S., A. Cardona, C. Lamine, and M. Cerf. 2016. Sustainability transitions: Insights on processes of niche-regime interaction and regime reconfiguration in agri-food systems. Journal of Rural Studies 48: 92–103.
Burmeister, L.L., and Y. Choi. 2012. Food sovereignty movement activism in South Korea: National policy impacts? Agriculture and Human Values 29 (2): 247–258.
Cairns, K., J. Johnston, and N. MacKendrick. 2013. Feeding the ‘organic child’: Mothering through ethical consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture 13 (2): 97–118.
Campbell, H. 2005. The rise and rise of EurepGAP: European (re) invention of colonial food relations. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 13 (2): 1–19.
Campbell, H. 2009. Breaking new ground in food regime theory: Corporate environmentalism, ecological feedbacks and the ‘food from somewhere’ regime? Agriculture and Human Values 26 (4): 309.
Castellano, R.L.S. 2015. Alternative food networks and food provisioning as a gendered act. Agriculture and Human Values 32 (3): 461–474.
Castellano, R.L.S. 2016. Alternative food networks and the labor of food provisioning: A third shift? Rural Sociology 81 (3): 445–469.
Chae, J. 2009. The conservative counter discourses on “candlelight protest”. Korean Political Science Review 43 (3): 129–150.
Chang, D. 2010. Politicization of risk in the 2008 candlelight protests. In Risk society and risk politics, ed. J. Jung et al., 159–203. Seoul: Seoul National University Press.
Choi, K. 2006. Problems of school lunch and directions of school lunch movements by civil organizations (Unpublished master’s thesis). Graduate School of NGO Policies, Hanil Jangsin University, Seoul, Korea.
Choi, Y., and H. Kim. 2015. Success factors of the local food movement and their implications: The case of Wanju-Gun, Republic of Korea. Procedia Economics and Finance 23: 1168–1189.
Cwiertka, J.J. 2013. Cuisine, colonialism and cold war: Food in twentieth-century Korea. Islington: Reaktion Books.
Declaration of Nyéléni. 2007. Selingue, Mali. https://nyeleni.org/spip.php?article290. Accessed December 2019.
Dong-Ah Daily. 1979. Restart the school lunch. https://dna.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1979112000209204002&editNo=2&printCount=1&publishDate=1979-11-20&officeId=00020&pageNo=4&printNo=17885&publishType=00020. Accessed March 2019.
El Bilali, H. 2019. The multi-level perspective in research on sustainability transitions in agriculture and food systems: A systematic review. Agriculture 9 (4): 74.
El Bilali, H., C. Callenius, C. Strassner, and L. Probst. 2019. Food and nutrition security and sustainability transitions in food systems. Food and Energy Security 8 (2): e00154.
Elzen, B., F.W. Geels, C. Leeuwis, and B. Van Mierlo. 2011. Normative contestation in transitions ‘in the making’: Animal welfare concerns and system innovation in pig husbandry. Research Policy 40 (2): 263–275.
Fisher, B., and J. Tronto. 1990. Toward a feminist theory of care. In Circles of care: Work and identity in women's lives, ed. E.K. Abel, and M.K. Nelson, 36–54. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Food and Agriculture Organization. 2010. Biodiversity and sustainable diets. https://www.fao.org/3/a-i3004e.pdf. Accessed May 2019.
Friedmann, H. 2005. From colonialism to green capitalism: Social movements and emergence of food regimes. In New directions in the sociology of global development, 227–64. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Gabrielson, T., and K. Parady. 2010. Corporeal citizenship: Rethinking green citizenship through the body. Environmental Politics 19 (3): 374–391.
Gaddis, J.E. 2019. The labor of lunch: Why we need real food and real jobs in American public schools. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gaddis, J.E., and A.K. Coplen. 2018. Reorganizing school lunch for a more just and sustainable food system in the US. Feminist Economics 24 (3): 89–112.
Galli, F., G. Brunori, F. Di Iacovo, and S. Innocenti. 2014. Co-producing sustainability: Involving parents and civil society in the governance of school meal services, a case study from Pisa, Italy. Sustainability 6 (4): 1643–1666.
Geels, F.W. 2002. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: A multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy 31 (8–9): 1257–1274.
Geels, F.W. 2011. The multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions: Responses to seven criticisms. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 1 (1): 24–40.
Geels, F.W., and J. Schot. 2007. Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy 36: 399–417.
Gilbert, J.L., A.E. Schindel, and S.A. Robert. 2018. Just transition in a public school food system: The case of Buffalo, New York. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 8: 95–113.
Gyunggi Province. 2018. Proceedings of committee on ecofriendly school meal support.
Gyunghyang Newspaper 1957. Hundred million sacks of wheat have been sent from the United States. https://dna.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1957041500329203001&editNo=1&printCount=1&publishDate=1957-04-15&officeId=00032&pageNo=3&printNo=3580&publishType=00020. Accessed May 2019.
Gyunghyang Newspaper. 1963. Hundred-thousand children are starving. https://dna.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1963013000329206001&editNo=6&printCount=1&publishDate=1963-01-30&officeId=00032&pageNo=6&printNo=5310&publishType=00020. Accessed March 2019.
Gyunghyang Newspaper. 1977. Poor students are skipping lunches due to the sudden termination of the bread program. https://dna.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1977092100329207019&editNo=2&printCount=1&publishDate=1977-09-21&officeId=00032&pageNo=7&printNo=9841&publishType=00020. Accessed March 2019.
Gyunghyang Newspaper. 1997. Free lunches for 10,000 students. https://dna.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1997011800329102004&editNo=45&printCount=1&publishDate=1997-01-18&officeId=00032&pageNo=2&printNo=15998&publishType=00010. Accessed February 2019.
Hankook Economy. 2006. The worst food poisoning in school food. https://www.hankyung.com/society/article/2006062215771. Accessed January 2020.
Hansen, T., and L. Coenen. 2015. The geography of sustainability transitions: Review, synthesis, and reflections on an emergent research field. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 17: 92–109.
Hargreaves, T., N. Longhurst, and G. Seyfang. 2013. Up, down, round and round: Connecting regimes and practices in innovation for sustainability. Environment and Planning A 45 (2): 402–420.
Harris, E. 2009. Neoliberal subjectivities or a politics of the possible? Reading for difference in alternative food networks. Area 41 (1): 55–63.
Hinrichs, C.C. 2014. Transitions to sustainability: A change in thinking about food systems change? Agriculture and Human Values 31 (1): 143–155.
Ilieva, R., and A. Hernandez. 2018. Scaling-Up sustainable development initiatives: A comparative case study of agri-food system innovations in Brazil, New York, and Senegal. Sustainability 10 (11): 4057.
Ju, E.H. 2016. Analysis on free school meal policy in Seoul: Focusing on diagnostics of public value failure. The Korean Administration for Policy Studies 25 (1): 269–297.
Jung, K. 2005. A case study on the women’s peasant movement in Gyeongbuk areas: Female activists and their activities. The Journal of Rural Society 15 (1): 59–101.
Jung, H., J. Sung, and H. Lee. 2019. Domestic eco-friendly agricultural goods: Demands and prospects. Naju: Korean Rural Economic Institute.
Kang, M. 2011. Free for all, organic school lunch programs in South Korea. In School food politics: The complex ecology of hunger and feeding in schools around the world, ed. S. Robert and M.B. Weaver-Hightower, 120–139. New York: Peter Lang.
Kang, S. 2016. 5 years of school meals in Seoul. Hankook-Nongjung.
Kern, F., and J. Markard. 2016. Analysing energy transitions: Combining insights from transition studies and international political economy. In Palgrave handbook of the international political economy of energy, ed. T. Van de Graf et al., 291–318. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kim, H.J. 2009. Building local food system through school foods safety movement: A case study of Naju City in GeonNam privince, Korea. The Journal of Rural Society 19 (2): 63–92.
Kim, H.J. 2013. School food and local food: A comparative study of Korea and Japan. The Journal of Rural Society 23 (1): 87–139.
Kim, H.J., H.J. Lee, and S. Kim. 2014. A study on the social characteristics and types of environment-friendly farmers. Korean Research on Environmental Sociology (ECO) 18 (2): 45–82.
Kim, I.J., and J.H. Lee. 2011. The housewives’ purchase behaviors on environment-friendly agricultural products in Daejeon area. Korean Journal of Community Nutrition 16 (3): 386–397.
Kirwan, J., B. Ilbery, D. Maye, and J. Carey. 2013. Grassroots social innovations and food localisation: An investigation of the local food programme in England. Global Environmental Change 23 (5): 830–837.
Kleine, D., and M. das Graças Brightwell. 2015. Repoliticising and scaling-up ethical consumption: Lessons from public procurement for school meals in Brazil. Geoforum 67: 135–147.
Korean Agricultural Policy News. 2020. Is Choongnam abandoning eco-friendly school lunch?. https://www.ikpnews.net/news/articleView.html?idxno=40805. Accessed May 2020.
Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation. 2017. Survey for the expansion of public meal plan. https://edu.at.or.kr/cmm/fms/FileDown.do?atchFileId=FILE_000000000003233&fileSn=0. Accessed December 2019.
Korean Gallup. 2014. https://www.gallup.co.kr/gallupdb/reportDownload.asp?seqNo=580. Accessed April 2019.
Korean Rural Economic News. 2019. Bidding system is modified in school lunch. Accessed in May 2020.
Korean Social Statistics. 2011. A status of Korean society. Korea: Seoul.
Kuokkanen, A., A. Nurmi, M. Mikkilä, M. Kuisma, H. Kahiluoto, and L. Linnanen. 2018. Agency in regime destabilization through the selection environment: The finnish food system’s sustainability transition. Research Policy 47 (8): 1513–1522.
Kyung-In Daily. 2002. Discussion on school lunch hygiene management. Accessed May 2020.
Kyungnam Newspaper. 2002. For tasty and nutrient school lunch. Accessed May 2020.
Lachman, D.A. 2013. A survey and review of approaches to study transitions. Energy Policy 58: 269–276.
Lakind, A., L. Skipper, and A. Morales. 2016. Fostering multiple goals in farm to school. Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 16 (4): 58–65.
Lang, T., D. Barling, and M. Caraher. 2009. Food policy: Integrating health, environment and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lawhon, M., and J.T. Murphy. 2012. Socio-technical regimes and sustainability transitions: Insights from political ecology. Progress in Human Geography 36 (3): 354–378.
Lee, D., S. Ju, and J. Han. 2016. A study of communal feeding establishment employees’ work-family conflict level family burnout, and job burnout. International Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Research 30 (6): 197–211.
Lee, E.H., G.Y. Yun, and S.H. An. 2016. An analysis of the policy change in free school meals using multiple streams framework. The Korea Educational Review 22 (1): 77–104.
Lee, K., Y. Jang, and W. Kim. 1994. A study on the state of lunchbox preparation and the opinion of school lunch program of mothers with elementary school children in Seoul. Family and Environment Research 32 (5): 135–142.
Lee, O., M. Cho, and H. Chang. 2014. The organization commitment and perception of human resource management by employment types of school foodservice employees. Journal of the Korean Society of Food Science and Nutrition 43 (1): 162–171.
Lehtinen, U. 2012. Sustainability and local food procurement: A case study of Finnish public catering. British Food Journal 114 (8): 1053–1071.
MacKendrick, N. 2014. More work for mother: Chemical body burdens as a maternal responsibility. Gender & Society 28 (5): 705–728.
MacKendrick, N. 2018. Better safe than sorry: How consumers navigate exposure to everyday toxics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Maeil Economy. 1997. Catch the two-trillion won market. https://www.mk.co.kr/news/home/view/1997/01/1034/. Accessed March 2019.
Maeil Economy. 2010. Mayor Oh rejects catastrophic populism. https://www.mk.co.kr/news/society/view/2010/12/668382/. Accessed December 2018.
Maeil Economy. 2019. Each school lunch worker is in charge of more than 100 students, twice other public organizations. https://www.mk.co.kr/news/society/view/2019/01/22594/. Accessed April 2019.
Markard, J., R. Raven, and B. Truffer. 2012. Sustainability transitions: An emerging field of research and its prospects. Research Policy 41 (6): 955–967.
McMichael, P. 2002. The global restructuring of agro-food systems. Mondes En Développement 1: 45–53.
Ministry of Education. 1981. The school lunch act. Seoul Korea.
Ministry of Education. 2014. The school lunch act. Seoul Korea.
Ministry of Education. 2018. The expansion of universal free eco-friendly school lunch program. https://opengov.seoul.go.kr/sanction/14564268. Accessed April 2019.
Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology. 2011. Evaluation of supports for school lunch. Seoul Korea.
Monthly Nutriand. 2018. Universal-free school lunch policy at 17 local governments. https://m.blog.naver.com/nutriand/221241014026. Accessed December 2019.
Morgan, K., and R. Sonnino. 2013. The school food revolution: Public food and the challenge of sustainable development. London: Routledge.
Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). 2008. American beef, is it safe from BSE? PD Notebook.
Munhwa Newspaper. 2002. Hygiene, nutrition… I can’t trust school lunches. parents and teachers are complaining. Accessed May 2020.
Oh My News. 2011. Mayor Oh and superintendent of education debated. https://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0001610363&PAGE_CD=N0000&BLCK_NO=3&CMPT_CD=M0001. Accessed April 2019.
O’Neill, K.J., A.K. Clear, A. Friday, and M. Hazas. 2019. ‘Fractures’ in food practices: Exploring transitions towards sustainable food. Agriculture and Human Values 36 (2): 1–15.
Oostindjer, M., J. Aschemann-Witzel, Q. Wang, S.E. Skuland, B. Egelandsdal, G.V. Amdam, A. Schjøll, M.C. Pachucki, P. Rozin, J. Stein, V.L. Almli, and E.A. Kleef. 2016. Are school meals a viable and sustainable tool to improve the healthiness and sustainability of children´s diet and food consumption?: A cross-national comparative perspective. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 57 (18): 3942–3958.
Park, H. 2008. The political process and the effect of the participatory democracy in Korea: The comparative study of “the initial movement for child care ordinance amendment of gwacheon” and “the initiative movement for school lunches ordinance enactment”. Memory and Prospect 18 (18): 307–344.
Park, S. 1995. A study of the Korean women peasant movement: Experience of organization and individuals. Yonsei: Yonsei University Press.
Park, S., and E. Jeong. 2010. Formation of social identity of women peasants and development of women peasants movement: Focusing on the Korean women peasant association. The Journal of Rural Society 20 (1): 89–129.
Park, Y., J. Lee, and M. Lee. 1997. Comparisons of students’ and their parents’ satisfaction of school lunch program in middle school by foodservice management. Korean Journal of Community Nutrition 2 (2): 218–231.
Pitt, H., and M. Jones. 2016. Scaling up and out as a pathway for food system transitions. Sustainability 8 (10): 1025.
Powell, L.J., and H. Wittman. 2018. Farm to school in British Columbia: Mobilizing food literacy for food sovereignty. Agriculture and Human Values 35 (1): 193–206.
Robert, S.A., and M.B. Weaver-Hightower. 2011. School food politics: The complex ecology of hunger and feeding in schools around the world. Bern: Peter Lang.
Rodier, L. 2014. Assessing the role of the IMF in South Korea during the Asian financial crisis. Journal of Economics 2 (2): 107–113.
Rossi, A., S. Bui, and T. Marsden. 2019. Redefining power relations in agrifood systems. Journal of Rural Studies. 68: 147–158.
Rut, M., and A.R. Davies. 2018. Transitioning without confrontation?: Shared food growing niches and sustainable food transitions in Singapore. Geoforum 96: 278–288.
Scott, D.N., J. Haw, and R. Lee. 2016. ‘Wannabe toxic-free?’: From precautionary consumption to corporeal citizenship. Environmental Politics 26 (2): 322–342.
Segye Ilbo. 2018. By 2021, all Seoul high schools will serve universal-free, eco friendly school lunches. https://www.segye.com/newsView/20181029005096. Accessed December 2019.
Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE). 2013. Seoul student population has been decreased into half since 1990, https://stat.seoul.go.kr/pdf/e-webzine68.pdf. Accessed April 2019.
Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE). 2018. Seoul educational statistics. Seoul: Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.
Sidaner, E., D. Balaban, and L. Burlandy. 2013. The Brazilian school feeding programme: An example of an integrated programme in support of food and nutrition security. Public Health Nutrition 16 (6): 989–994.
Slingerland, M., and M. Schut. 2014. Jatropha developments in Mozambique: Analysis of structural conditions influencing niche-regime interactions. Sustainability 6 (11): 7541–7563.
Sonnino, R., C.L. Torres, and S. Schneider. 2014. Reflexive governance for food security: The example of school feeding in Brazil. Journal of Rural Studies 36: 1–12.
Spaargaren, G., P. Oosterveer, and A. Loeber (eds.). 2013. Food practices in transition: Changing food consumption, retail and production in the age of reflexive modernity. London: Routledge.
Stapleton, S.R. 2019. Parent activists versus the corporation: A fight for school food sovereignty. Agriculture and Human Values 36 (4): 805–817.
Szasz, A. 2007. Shopping our say to safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Tronto, J.C. 2013. Caring democracy: Markets, equality, and justice. New York: New York University Press.
United States Department of Agriculture. 2019. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and specified risk materials (SRM) guidance materials and resources, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/regulatory-compliance/specified-risk-material/specified-risk-materials. Accessed April 2019.
Yang, Y. 2010. Well-being discourse and Chinese food in Korean society. Korea Journal 50 (1): 85–109.
Yoon, S.J. 2018. On the organization and practice of Christian peasants’ association in Chonnam region. Journal of Democracy and Human Rights 18 (4): 225–284.
Wittman, H., and J. Blesh. 2017. Food sovereignty and fome zero: Connecting public food procurement programmes to sustainable rural development in Brazil. Journal of Agrarian Change 17 (1): 81–105.
World Food Program. 2016. Home grown school feeding. https://www.wfp.org/home-grown-school-feeding. Accessed in December 2019.
The authors would like to express their sincere gratitude to the peer reviewers, journal editors, Jane Collins, Alfonso Morales, and Seulgi Son for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.
Support for this research was provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no competing interest.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Gaddis, J.E., Jeon, J. Sustainability transitions in agri-food systems: insights from South Korea’s universal free, eco-friendly school lunch program. Agric Hum Values 37, 1055–1071 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-020-10137-2
- School lunch
- Sustainability transitions
- Precautionary consumption
- Corporeal citizenship
- Korean school lunch policy
- Food sovereignty