Friday, 17 August 2012

Yuck! - The wonderful world of school catering

The years spent in primary and secondary school are some of the most memorable ones for many people, for both better and worse – and one of most common negative experiences for many in Hungary is the abysmal quality of school catering. Meanwhile, in Britain, students are able to enjoy a wide variety of dishes, supplemented by the results of Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better campaign – and as a group of Essex University researchers confirmed, better school meals lead to better results. So how did the Hungarians fail where the British didn't? Read the underlying economic explanations, below.


So what is the problem?


Most Hungarian primary and secondary school cantines are supplied by private companies specialising in student catering and mass food production for summer camps, dormitories, schools and the like. The schools are usually owned by local city councils, or – more recently, due to a new law – by the Department of Education. (In the UK, 7% of pupils are attending 'independent schools', funded by private sources – the corresponding statistics for Hungary is a mere 3.7%.) These local municipalities in turn try to reduce costs as much as possible – giving less to the individual schools to spend from, which in turn causes those schools to choose the cheapest catering offer available. But you may ask, what is the problem with cheap? Fast food in the UK before Jamie Oliver wasn't that bad.

The problem with cheap


The main problem is, that in Hungary, cheap means way, way cheaper than in the UK. Even considering that according to the recent Big Mac index, you can buy 1.2 times as many food in Hungary than in the UK from the same amount of food, the differences are still enormous. But why?

Meal price differences


Firstly, consider the price differences between the average cost of school lunches – the UK average of the two extremes of 1.25₤ and 2.50₤ is 1.875₤, while the average Hungarian cost equivalent is 1.13₤. It is way lower, and even with the price level multiplier, the resulting 1.3 pounds are simply not enough to provide quality food for Hungarian schoolchildren – in fact, 1.3 pounds are not even enough to buy a Happy Meal at McDonald's, so even low-quality fast food isn't a viable option.


Wage differences


So why not simply raise costs for Hungarian schoolchildren, instead of compromising on quality? The answer lies with the cost of food – compared to the wages which pay for children catering.
The median wage in Hungary is 213,000 HUF a month – the equivalent of 604 pound sterlings, which means 725 'weighted' pounds, the amount of money adjusted for UK prices using the multiplier above. Meanwhile, the same median wage in the UK is 501₤ a week, meaning an 2004₤ median wage – and we come to the astonishing conclusion that even with price level adjustment, the Hungarian median wage is a mere 36% of the UK one.

Disproportionate contribution


That means that while the monthly cost of catering for a single children is a mere 2% of median wages in the UK, it is 5% for Hungarian parents – and for many under the median line, the cost is even more. So the only option remaining would be government subsidies – and with a 1.2% decrease of GDP in this financial quarter, the Hungarian government has bigger troubles than providing free school lunches.
So until then, it seems the Hungarian children are left to fend for themselves in supplementing the school meals – the more lucky spending many times of the original school meal prices to buy food for themselves, and the less lucky suffering from lack of appetite and even malnutrition due to the quality issues. Dig in!

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