Bratislava, Slovakia – Earlier this month, former Slovak Prime Minister and current chairman of the ruling Smer party Robert Fico announced that the government would launch, as of January 1st next year, free-of-charge lunches for more than half a million pupils across the country.
According to the project, every pupil in the last year of kindergarten and in elementary school – amounting to more than 500.000 children – will receive 1.20 euro per meal to pay for their lunch at school. If the measure proves successful, the government is considering extending it in secondary schools. “It will be direct payment paid by the state directly to towns and cities into their budgets”, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini explained when the proposal was first made public before summer.
According to M. Fico, only 50 to 60% of children are currently eating their lunch at school. This social program aims to increase that rate by providing financial support to Slovak households and families.
The announcement quickly sparked controversy. Opposition politicians criticized this “populist” measure which fails to address the real problems of the country’s education system, like the level of the teachers’ salaries or the quality of the classes. Slovak MP Veronika Remisova pointed out that at least 10% of schools didn’t have any dining rooms, and further argued that this measure completely disregarded the quality of canteen food, and is thus likely to increase malnutrition among young children. SaS party MP Branislav Grohling pointed out that “most pupils and parents don’t need free meals, but they do need quality textbooks, well-equipped schools and good education for their children”.
With an estimated cost of nearly 120 million euros, the measure doesn’t come cheap. On social media, many Slovaks quickly argued that there is, in the end, “no such thing as a free lunch” and that they, as taxpayers, would end up footing the bill of a measure simply designed to buy people’s votes.
Others have, more sarcastically, noted that Fico’s political strategy seems to mainly consist in “giving away free stuff”, regardless of the impact it might have on the state budget or taxpayers’ wallets. In 2014, for instance, his government passed a bill entitling children, students and pensioners to travail by train for free, as part of a wider 250 million euro social package.
A few weeks ago, pictures of a Slovak train catching fire started circulating on the internet.
Many people were quick to draw an analogy with the government’s latest “free” scheme: “When free trains look this way, how are free lunches going to look like?”, reads, for instance, the post below with a picture of a chicken burnt to a crisp.
But despite the mix of anger, scepticism and mockery that Fico’s plan has sparked, this measure is bound to be welcomed by a number of low-income families and households across the country.
Entitling pupils to free lunches at school is, once again, part of a wider 500 million euro social package presented by the government. Among other things, it could also include doubling Christmas bonuses for pensioners, increasing the number of patients entitled to spa treatments, giving out loans to newly married couples and financial aids for the tourism industry. A lower VAT on accommodation and new holiday vouchers are also part of the plan.