School meal robots debut in Seoul’s middle school

2023.11.23 14:59:01 | 2023.11.23 17:05:40

[Photo by Lee Chung-woo]이미지 확대

[Photo by Lee Chung-woo]

Automation is changing school cafeterias in Seoul by addressing labor shortages and improving worker health.

On Wednesday, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education introduced Korea’s first school meal robots at Soonggok Middle School in northern Seoul, where four school meal robots have been preparing students’ lunches since August 2024. The robots were developed in collaboration with the Korea Franchise Association and Hankook-Robotics Co., with a 1 billion won (about $767,500) grant from the Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement.

Each robot is specialized in stir-frying, frying, making soup or stew, and handling meat dishes. On Wednesday, they cooked seasoned chicken, beef soup, stir-fried rice, and kimchi stir-fry, successfully preparing 720 servings between 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.

Notably, these robots did not replace the existing seven cooks and dietitians. “The job itself is physically tough, and with many elderly cooks retiring, it is challenging to hire new ones. But school meal robots will be a great help for the labor shortage in school cafeterias,” the head of Seoul’s school dietitian association said.

Automation is expected to benefit school cafeteria workers’ health. According to the results of a survey conducted by 17 metropolitan and provincial education offices nationwide, out of 24,000 school cafeteria workers, 54 were found to have developed lung cancer due to the dust generated during cooking process. By entrusting high-temperature cooking to robots, it is now possible for workers to focus on other tasks without worrying about health. When asked, cafeteria workers at Soonggok Middle School reported that 83 percent of them felt robots helped improve working conditions, with 86 percent stating that the workload had been reduced by 25 to 30 percent compared to before.

“With the Soonggok case as a reference, we will be able to supplement the system and expand it to other schools,” Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education superintendent Cho Hee-yeon said, adding that he hopes the robots are introduced primarily at schools where there is a shortage of cooking staff to stabilize employment.

By Lee Yong-ik and Chang Iou-chung

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