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Providing food for thought in China's rural schools

Updated:2017-06-08 10:52:13   China Daily

Children enjoy free lunches in Hefeng county, Hubei province. [Photo/Xinhua]

A nonprofit organization started by an investigative journalist is raising money and funding philanthropic projects for the poorest children in society, as Liu Wei reports for Xinhua China Features.

Qiang Zi (not his real name) has to walk two hours to school in the mountain village of Xinhuang, a county in Hunan province. But the 7-year-old student enjoys school-and the free lunch he receives there.

Once, students like Qiang endured hunger and health problems because their families were too poor to afford to provide lunch. This meant no food for 10 hours, and most had to drink water to appease their grumbling stomachs.

Hunger caused malnutrition, which affected the children's physical and mental development. According to a report on nutrition and chronic diseases published by the National Health and Family Planning Commission in 2015, rural children age 6 and younger were two to three times more likely to be underweight and experience developmental delays than their urban peers.

The report troubled investigative journalist Deng Fei, who was researching rural problems across the country: "It shocked me. I couldn't believe that thousands of children were still struggling on one meal a day despite China's rapid economic growth. People say there's no such a thing as a free lunch, but why couldn't we make it happen?"

In April 2011, Deng started the Free Lunch for Children Foundation, with the help of 500 like­minded journalists, lawyers, professionals, low level officials and volunteers.

It is the first public initiative to offer free lunches to students in remote, poverty-stricken areas. In the past six years, it has raised 270 million yuan ($39 million) and fed 190,000 students a day at 738 schools in 26 provinces and regions.

The initiative inspired a government plan. Since 2011, the central government has earmarked 16 billion yuan to provide proper meals for impoverished students in rural areas, starting in their first year at school.

Students of different ages have become taller on average following the implementation of the Nutrition Improvement Plan. Those who have eaten school lunches for three or four years, especially students ages 11 to 15, are 5cm taller on average, according to the Report on Nutrition Improvement in Poor Rural Areas, published by the China Development Research Foundation on June 1.

For example, from 2012 to last year, 11-year-old boys and girls grew taller (boys averaged 137.8 to 143.5 centimeters, while girls were 138.7 cm to 144.3 cm). Boys and girls in the same age groups have grown by 5.7 cm and 5.6 cm respectively.

"We didn't believe the results of the data at first, but after repeated confirmations, we were convinced." said Lu Mai, the foundation's vice-president.

However, the 3 yuan it provides for a meal is not enough. Many schools cannot build a canteen or hire a cook, so they just provide bread and milk.

Deng Fei serves free meals to children in Yi-Hui-Miao autonomous county, Guizhou. [Photo by Zhao Junxia for China Daily]

A big role to play

Speaking on the foundation's sixth anniversary, Deng said it still has a big role to play: "Our program is still going strong. We provide free lunches to children in poverty-stricken areas not covered by the national plan, and also give money to help schools that need infrastructure and resources."

Local authorities have backed the initiative. In May 2011, Deng's team established a new delivery model in Xinhuang: for every 1 yuan the local government pays for meals and building canteens, Deng's team contributes a further 2 yuan.

The initiative now covers all the education centers, kindergartens and schools in Xinhuang.

Yao Haiyan, the county's deputy mayor, recalled the day the first new kitchen began operations and 59 students ate their first free lunch: "The meal was rice, fried pickles and beef, stir-fried potatoes and tomato soup. Many children wolfed down their meals."

Yao said the county government spent a lot of money setting up canteens and drawing up strict food safety measures. A special account operated by the foundation means the bill for each meal is made public on social media.

"Corruption is not a problem-every penny is marked down for transparency," Yao said. "The students are no longer hungry, and they love learning. Our students are often ranked top in the city."

Deng is pleased to see more children enjoying free lunches, but said poor children are still trapped by the problems caused by poverty.

Many rural families are poor. Parents head to big cities to make money, leaving the children with their grandparents. There is no timely treatment when they get sick. "Even for better-off families, a serious illness is quite likely to throw them back into poverty. That's why we introduced the Commercial Critical Illness Insurance Program for rural children," he said.

The CCII program and Deng's insurance program go hand in hand, with the government, families and the charity all making a contribution.

Xiong Min, deputy mayor of Hefeng County in Hubei province, said since 2012 the program has helped more than 400 families in one county.

The first free lunch program was launched at the Shaba Primary School in Qianxi county, Guizhou province, in 2011.[Photo/Xinhua]

Shaping policy

Deng's team is working on other practical charity programs. One provides poor students with life and study supplies, while another teaches rural children about personal safety. A third program builds movable dormitories for rural students who walk long distances to school, and another recruits urban families to support rural orphans or left-behind children.

"We also run a program called E-Farmer Spring, which aims to help villagers sell farm produce to improve their incomes. This way, we attract parents of left-behind children back home," Deng said.

Critics say the problems of China's rural poor are too great to solve through microphilanthropy, but Deng believes his programs have a role in shaping government policy: "Charities cannot and will not replace the government. But so long as the government, enterprises and charities work together, a social empowerment model is built. We have succeeded in Xinhuang and Hefeng, and we believe these programs can take root in other poor areas."

He opened a map and started drawing lines. Connecting two poor counties with a line, he pointed to Wuling Mountain, one of China's poorest areas, which covers parts of the provinces of Hunan, Guizhou and Hubei, and Chongqing municipality. The total poverty-stricken population is 36 million.

China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) has pledged to lift 70 million people out of poverty, posing a huge test for local governments.

Yao said government officials should work harder to solve people's problems, rather than thinking of climbing the political ladder: "We should combine social resources and government plans to better serve the people's needs."

Deng said the biggest challenge is getting enough people to help, because urban volunteers are not able to stay in the countryside for long periods.

He believes the priority is to train local staff and help rural young people sharpen their skills and start their own businesses: "We aim to empower people to develop and grow on their own."

Now, Qiang, the young student in Xinhuang, is getting more than a free lunch and health insurance because his father has returned from the city to participate in the farming program.

"Thanks to Free Lunch, my dad can stay with me," he said.

Children are enjoying their free lunch at Shaba Primary School of Qianxi County, Guizhou Province in 2011. [Photo by Zhao Junxia for China Daily]

Online donations begin to dominate

From 2011, the year it was established, to December, the Free Lunch for Children Foundation raised 253 million yuan ($37 million). It has spent 169 million yuan to provide meals for 190,000 children in China's rural areas, in addition to funding infrastructure developments and resources.

Last year, the foundation raised 75.72 million yuan, achieving its target, and spent 59 million yuan on charitable activities.

Donations from banks accounted for roughly 30 percent of the total, with 69 percent of online donations coming via Ant Financial Services, the Tencent Charity Fund and Tmall Charity Shops, indicating that online donations have started to dominate the sector.

E-commerce platforms, such as Tmall and Taobao, have developed an effective model of cooperation between commerce and charities. Last year, e-commerce platforms raised 14.3 million yuan, accounting for 19 percent of the total.

In the past six years, the foundation has spent nearly 19 million yuan in Xinhuang county, Hunan province, according to Deng Fei, the founder.

"The reason we have invested tens of millions of yuan is not a reflection of wealth or capability, but of a growing awareness of the role of charities. People are more willing to care, help others and participate in charitable activities via the mobile internet in terms of money, capability and ideas. We just bring people together and get everybody moving with the tide," he said.

"During the last six years, many people have asked why we persevered with the charity. Our answer is that every child in rural villages deserves fair conditions and opportunities to change their own lives and transcend social class. China's villages can develop sustainably and with dignity."

Jiang Chenglong contributed to this story

Yu Haiyan, 12, often misses lunch at her primary school.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Making the most of one meal a day

"Add more sugar, please," 12-year-old Yu Haiyan said to a vendor who sells snacks during the noon break at her school in Baoshan village, Gansu province.

Wearing a big smile, Yu took a small bowl of mixed congee-a thin gruel of rice and water, which is all she can afford with the 3 yuan (4 cents) her grandfather gives her every day-and moved off to chat with her friends.

However, the vendor doesn't visit every day, so the fifth-grade student often misses lunch. She prefers to stay in the classroom with her friends. "I usually spend a few coppers on a bottle of orange or grape flavor soda water," she said.

Every day at 6:30 am, Yu leaves her grandparents' house in Jiaoshan village and walks 3 kilometers to Baoshan Hope Primary School, a journey of about an hour, to ensure she is ready for the start of classes at 8 am. On her way to school, she likes to watch the nearby creek and rapeseed flowers.

The students usually have seven classes during the school day, which lasts from 8 am to 4:30 pm. Yu's favorite classes are music, Chinese and English-she finds it easy to remember the English texts.

At 9 am, after early morning class, some of Yu's classmates go to the small canteen, built from mud and stone, to collect government-sponsored breakfasts and distribute them to their peers.

Yu doesn't like the breakfast, which consists of bread, an egg and a box of milk, so she often takes the egg and bread home for her grandfather. She drinks the milk, even though she doesn't enjoy it: "It doesn't have any taste, so I don't like to drink it. I prefer something sweet."

Usually, Yu only has one meal a day, which she eats with her grandparents in the evening. Noodles with tomatoes, egg and shredded fried potato is her favorite dish.

Having lived with her grandparents since an early age, the 1.5-meter-tall girl has only lived with her parents for three years in total.

Her grandfather, Zhao Xiecheng, said his daughter, Yu's mother, didn't have a good life, so she divorced her husband three years ago.

People in rural areas place great stress on having male offspring, according to the 53-year-old farmer, so Yu and her mother didn't get enough respect from the girl's father and his family. That was one of the main reasons behind the couple's divorce.

"I didn't like living with both my parents," Yu said. "I would rather live with my grandparents."

Yu's mother works on contract in Beijing and only returns home once a year, staying less than a month. Yu misses her mother greatly, but she doesn't get to spend enough time with her. If possible, she said, she would like to live with her mother in the capital.

Xin Wen contributed to this story

Deng Fei is offering learning kit for children at Dongfeng Primary School of Xinhuang County in Hunan Province. [Photo by Zhao Junxia for China Daily]

Editor:Zhai Xinran

Keywords:   food rural schools