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Spoon Half Full for China’s Rural School Kids

School Lunch Project Years in the Making Aims to Fight Malnutrition Among Poor Children

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.

CDRF’s findings were included in a report entitled Eliminating Poverty Through Development. It concluded that among China’s rural poor there is a link between good nutrition and a better chance that a family or individual can rise from poverty. Moreover, the report found that poor nutrition's impact on mental health and physical strength might cost China up to 5 percent of the nation's GDP.

The report’s authors advocated youth nutrition programs as worthwhile not only for better health but also for alleviating poverty and building the nation's economy.

Similar findings have been described in recent years by the Rural Education Action Program (REAP), whose researchers include Scott Rozelle, a Stanford University professor and long-time observer of China's rural development progress.

REAP staffers studied poverty in western Guangxi in 2008, surveying about 4,000 students. They found 39 percent of the children were anemic, a condition that lowers their energy level and makes it hard to concentrate.

Some 11 percent of the students studied by REAP were near-sighted, but only one in 20 could afford glasses. And 40 percent of these students had parasites.

Rozelle said China needs healthy schoolchildren who can grow up to support the nation's social and economic transformation. But currently, Rozelle said only 40 percent of all poor people living in rural China have ever attended high school.

Rural children are often denied a high school education because they fail mandatory entrance exams. And they fail at least in part, Rozelle said, because they suffer from poor health tied to undernourishment.

Lu said the government is now looking at boosting the meal project’s nationwide budget. One proposal calls for adding to the spending plan for cafeteria construction. Some say what’s needed is a cafeteria in every school covered by the program.
CDRF is also exploring plans for future projects that might provide nutritious food to pregnant women, babies and pre-school children in rural areas.

Managing Setbacks

CDRF officials have had to overcome several barriers to their child-nutrition initiatives. For example, at a 2009 international symposium on childhood early development in Beijing they learned that money allocated for school lunches by the central government and funneled to local officials in Du’an had been handed over to parents rather than directly spent on meals.
In addition, Lu said, “school cafeterias we sponsored had been shut down, and school food programs returned to the way they were before 2007.”

CDRF officials decided to improve program supervision so they could guarantee proper spending of central government meal subsidies. That decision prompted the 2010 study of school meals and student health, which found malnutrition in Du’an as well as three other counties in Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, and Ningxia Autonomous Region.

A subsequent report, obtained and publicized by Caixin that year, found some local governments targeted to receive school lunch funds through CDRF could not raise the necessary matching funds and lacked resources needed to open and manage school cafeterias. Instead, they typically raised matching funds from student families and contracted out cafeteria operations.

Another hurdle to overcome was that the subsidies covered only meal costs for boarding students; day students did not benefit.

The report sparked a public outcry. Child welfare and education groups weighed in with follow-up reports advocating policy adjustments, and numerous charities started raising money to finance student lunches or new cafeterias in poverty-stricken areas.

CDRF officials submitted another set of recommendations to policymakers, and REAP offered suggestions to central government leaders by working through the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The reports and soul-searching ended when Beijing authorities in November 2011 formally announced the nationwide nutrition program with a 16 billion yuan budget.

Before the project’s phase-in began last year, CDRF was commissioned to supervise the project. As a result, its staffers eventually plan to evaluate free school lunches in 478 counties scattered across 20 provinces. They hope to see that money is spent properly and children are getting enough to eat.

Before CDRF was assigned the oversight task, China’s Minister of Education Yuan Guiren told Lu that in his opinion a third-party evaluation system would be most appropriate.

Rural schools have reportedly embraced the program. In 60 percent of the targeted regions, schools have started building cafeterias. Others have started planning cafeteria projects.

Yet-to-be-resolved problems revolve around the types and quality of food that the cafeterias serve. The program calls for "nutritious food," leaving room for interpretation.

CDRF’s 2010 report said 45 percent of rural schools provide pre-packaged meals with questionable nutritional value.
A Caixin evaluation of meals in 2013 in Dounuo found cheap vegetables with very little protein from meat or eggs served to children. Students questioned by a reporter said they were not hungry, yet it's unclear whether they have been eating well.

At the Dounuo school, Caixin found, each student in the cafeteria line gets a half-spoon each of meat, tofu and cabbage, as well as a half-spoon of egg soup on top of their rice.

Moreover, attitudes in some communities toward student nutrition may have to change before the program can be called a genuine success.

“It’s strange to even talk about” malnourished youngsters, said Lu. “How is it possible that no one was paying attention to such an important issue?”

Lu said many parents in rural areas think that for their children it’s enough “to feed them white flour steamed buns.” And local officials in these areas do not consider nutrition an important issue, he said.

Lu said when confronted with questions about hunger among local children, some officials ask “isn't this the way it was when I was growing up?”

According to the 2010 study by CDRF, that “way” is neither healthy nor pretty. The caloric intake of students in the poor county of Xiji, Ningxia, was only 62 percent of the daily recommendation. It was just 68 percent in Xundian County, Yunnan.

Children surveyed received less than 20 percent of the recommended daily doses of calcium, iron and zinc. And students in Du’an received almost no vitamin C, which the report blamed for the fact that 12 percent of the school's children suffered from stunted growth.