It is good that some of the nation’s disadvantaged children no longer have to experience hunger since the New Taipei City Government launched an unprecedented program to provide free meals at convenience chain stores starting on Tuesday last week. The city government has made a good start in providing new emergent aids to disadvantaged groups that do not meet the qualifications to claim welfare benefits from the central government.
However, New Taipei City looks to make the measure just a stopgap, which will be insufficient as long as the budgeted NT$2 million (US$69,000) is not from its regular books, and coverage will be limited.
Its effort should be expanded, or transformed into a broader program, such as a food bank, because poverty is on the rise due to stagnant wages, growing inflation and high unemployment. The central government’s social welfare programs are not sufficient to take care of people who are unable to feed themselves.
These phenomena go against improvements in the quality of life in Taiwan, but it is a reality that has reflected on people’s responses to the free meal program.
On the day the initiative was launched, the authorities received 149 telephone calls asking for details about the free food program and 86 children approached convenience store clerks requesting help. At the end of the day, 31 children got their first free meals funded by the local government after passing a qualification review. As every meal is capped at NT$80, the city government will have to pay about NT$2,500 a day, if those children only request one meal a day, rather than three.
Those applying for assistance on the first day made the city government’s planned budget of NT$50,000 a month, or NT$1,666 per day, look insufficient, especially if more children ask for help.
The city government has stressed that this program is aimed at providing only temporary help for children under age of 18, rather than being a permanent lifeline for poor parents to feed their children. Those families will be referred to social welfare departments for long-term assistance.
In the US and other Western countries, governments do not take responsibility for providing free food programs. Instead they rely on charitable groups, which open food banks and solicit donations from the public to provide food for those in dire need. This approach has proved effective and lately some European countries have started setting up food banks to feed people who are unemployed amid the debt crisis, allowing governments to slash their welfare budgets and other costs. In the past, most European governments budgeted large amounts to provide this kind of welfare.
In Taiwan, over the past two or three years charities began opening food banks, some with the help of local governments and some with support from overseas non-profit organizations because, as yet, the nation’s welfare system is not fully developed and has limited coverage.
In 2010, a charity in Keelung collaborated with the city’s social welfare department to set up a food bank. According to a recent news report, the food bank helped feed 1,233 households last year. Those in financial difficulty and who cannot afford food are welcome there. They do not have to meet strict requirements to be recognized as low-income households by the government. Social workers working with the food bank will provide extra assistance, if needed.
The New Taipei City free meal program for children is a good policy. Hopefully, it will not be just a one-year, or two-year political expedient strategy by Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫).
At the very least, the program will need a regular budget from the local government; this will ensure that the impact of the program intensifies. If the central government works out a broader and longer-term scheme in collaboration with charities to help people who are starving, this will be beneficial to all Taiwanese.