Jun 21, 2013 11:57 AM

Spoon Half Full for China's Rural School Kids


A 2010 survey of boarding school students in four of China's poorest counties found hunger pangs, malnutrition and stunted growth appallingly common.

Some 72 percent of the more than 1,000 students questioned for the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF) survey said they felt grinding hunger while in class. And up to one-third said they went hungry every day.

Schoolboys surveyed in one of the counties – Du'an, in Guangxi Autonomous Region – weighed 10 kilograms less than the rural national average for their gender and age groups. They were also 11 centimeters shorter than average. Girls barely fared better: Researchers found them 7 kilograms underweight, and 9 centimeters shorter than average.

The survey followed years of similar research and pricked Beijing's conscience until, in fall 2011, CDRF received unprecedented permission from the highest authorities to expand free-lunch programs for rural schoolchildren nationwide.

CDRF's Compulsory Rural Education Students Nutrition Improvement Program, as it's officially called, started last year as a pilot project. It's now growing rapidly, with an increasing number of schools cafeterias opening to satisfy hungry students from poor families.

The program's current spending target is 16 billion yuan a year, or about 3 yuan per day per child, to feed each of 23 million students in about 100,000 rural schools in 680 impoverished counties nationwide. That budget could grow, however, if officials heed calls from some corners for more cafeterias and better food.

Leading the effort is CDRF, a non-profit agency operating under the central government's State Council. It's been commissioned to supervise and evaluate pilot meals programs, including a free lunch project for students in Du'an County.

CDRF research has concluded, based on findings from pilot project sites and schools in poor areas without meals, that free lunches improve the nutrition levels, physical development and mental development of poor children in rural China.

Moreover free school meals, the agency says, can lay a foundation for individuals and even entire families to break free from poverty.

Researchers worldwide have reached similar conclusions, and today governments in many lands support free-lunch programs that dwarf China's initiative.

India's largest-in-the-world school lunch program, for example, was serving about 130 million students in 950,000 schools nearly a decade ago. It started after Indian academics including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen filed a lawsuit that eventually forced the government to fight malnutrition by providing free school lunches.

The World Bank encourages governments in developing countries to put nutrition-improvement programs high on policy agendas, calling them a cost-effective way to care for public health. And many developing nations use aid received from foreign countries and international NGOs to pay for school lunch programs.

China's decision to gradually implement a national school lunch program, starting with pilot projects in selected areas, fits the pattern of policymaking and takes into account vast regional differences, said Lu Mai, CDRF's secretary-general.

"Pilot programs and experiments are a major distinguishing characteristic and talisman for Chinese public policymaking," he said. "Gaps between the different regions in China are huge" so that "even for projects that everyone considers necessary, we start with pilot test centers and then determine how to proceed."

Steel Plates

In a poor section of Guizhou Province, about 328 children at Dounuo Primary School line up for free meals promptly at 11:30 a.m. every school day. Here in mountainous Zhenning Bouyei Minority Autonomous County, the school cafeteria's chef spoons portions of stir-fried pork, tofu and sweet cabbage, seasoned with chilies, onto each child's steel plate. Students then help themselves to rice.

The central government through CDRF started financing the free meals at Dounuo a few months after the nationwide project was approved by the State Council in 2011. But students, teachers and other staffers do their part, too, by raising pigs, chickens and vegetables on school grounds.

In one corner of the campus pigs and chickens are raised in a livestock facility built for 10,000 yuan squeezed from the school's operating budget. The animals are fed lunch scraps until they're ready for slaughter: Children were fed meat from two school-raised pigs and 82 chickens last year.

Lunches are also supplemented with vegetables grown in a 150-square-meter garden by older students, under direction from their teachers.

The school's principal, Cheng Ruilin, said before the CDRF program began, students used the school cafeteria simply to heat food they carried from home. But meals from home were often too spare for growing children. In some area homes, Cheng said, families have nothing more to eat than boiled, wild baby ferns with salt, or rapeseed seedlings mixed with chilies.

Now, thanks to the school meals program, many children eat better during school hours than at home.

Even before CDRF's project started, poor students had received some public assistance. For example, the government in 2006 started covering student tuition and textbook fees and offering small subsidies to some of the neediest to cover daily expenses. Moreover, each student boarding in a Dounuo dormitory received an extra 1,000 yuan a year.

The same year the government started its student-subsidy program, CDRF staffers found shocking poverty gripping children at rural boarding schools in Guangxi's Du'an and Baise counties.

At these schools, which had no cafeterias, staffers found malnourished students eating only two daily meals of white rice with soybeans in brine. The discovery prompted CDRF, three years later, to closely study malnutrition in four impoverished counties.

CDRF's first pilot meals program in 2007 targeted schools in one poor county in southern China and another in the north. A 2009 study by the agency found students in these schools benefited from better health, more stamina, higher grades and improved psychological conditions than counterparts in similar schools that did not receive free meals.

Students served meals were 1.4 centimeters taller than others. They also had 15.1 percent more hemoglobins in their blood and twice the lung capacity, the study said.

In 2008, CDRF's first report on the pilot project was handed to the State Council Development Research Center and Premier Wen Jiabao, who said he supported the program. It later got a thumbs up at the Third Plenary Session of the 17th Communist Party of China Central Committee.

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