Free food for Chinese rural children

Investigative journalist Deng Fei used to try to guess the ages of children he met in villages while researching rural problems across China. He was shocked to find out how often he guessed wrong. Kids who looked 7 or 8 years old were actually 12 or 13.

Hunger causes malnutrition, which affects physical and mental development. A 2015 report on nutrition and chronic diseases by China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission found rural children under 6 were two to three times more likely than urban children to suffer low weight and developmental delays.

In April 2011, with the help of 500 like-minded Chinese journalists, lawyers, professionals, low-level officials and volunteers, Deng started Free Lunch for Children (FLC), the first public initiative to offer free meals to students in remote, poverty-stricken areas. Over the last six years, it has raised 270 million yuan ($US39 million $F79m) and fed 190,000 students a day at 738 schools in 26 provinces or autonomous regions.

FLC inspired a government plan. Since 2011, the central government has earmarked more than 16 billion yuan to properly feed poor students in rural areas from their first year at school.

Local authorities are backing FLC. In May 2011, Deng’s team established a new delivery model with Xinhuang County, in central China’s Hunan Province. For every 1 yuan the local government pays for meals and building canteens, Deng’s team pays 2 yuan.

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

Deputy county mayor Yao Haiyan recalls when the first new kitchen began working and 59 students ate their first free lunch: “The meal was rice, fried pickles and beef, stir-fried potato and tomato soup. Many children wolfed down their meals.”

Yao says the county government spent a lot setting up canteens and drawing up strict food safety measures. A special FLC account means the bill for each meal goes public on social media.

Deng’s team is working on other practical charity programs. One provides poor students with living and study supplies; one teaches rural children about personal safety; one builds movable dormitories for rural students who must walk long distances to school; one recruits urban families to support rural orphans or left-behind children; and one helps villagers sell farm produce to improve their incomes so they can stay home with their children.

“Charities cannot and will not replace the government. But so long as the government, enterprises and charities work together, a social empowerment model will be built. We have succeeded in Xinhuang and Hefeng and we believe these programs can take root in other poor areas,” says Deng.

More Stories