Free school meals help kids grow up

Lunch scheme aids in development of poor children in Chinese villages

From fighting malnutrition and protecting a nation’s water supply to getting employment for people with autism, these innovative ideas and programmes have made a big difference to many people’s lives across entire countries, in a big city or in a small village.

When researchers from a non-profit agency conducted a survey of boarding school students in four of China’s poorest counties in 2010, they were appalled by the findings.

About three-quarters of the 1,000 or so students surveyed were used to being hit by hunger pangs in class. Up to one-third said they went hungry every day.

Many schools had no cafeterias, and malnourished students were found subsisting on white rice with soya beans in brine twice a day.

The China Development Research Foundation (CDRF) found that schoolboys in Du’an county in Guangxi weighed 10kg less than the rural national average and were 11cm shorter. Girls, too, were 7kg lighter and 9cm shorter.

The survey, which confirmed years of similar findings, prompted the Chinese government to start a nationwide free lunch programme for schoolchildren in rural areas.

The Compulsory Rural Education Students Nutrition Improvement Programme, as it is officially called, started last year as a pilot project, with school cafeterias opening to feed hungry students from poor families for free.

It now aims to spend 16 billion yuan (S$3.3 billion) a year to feed some 23 million students in about 100,000 rural schools in 680 impoverished counties across China.

Leading the effort is CDRF, which operates under the central government’s State Council and which has been put in charge of supervising and evaluating the programme.

Its research has concluded that the free lunches – costing just 3 yuan per child per day – can make a big difference to the nutrition, physical and mental development of poor children in rural China.

The free meals can also lay a foundation for the children – and their families – to break free from poverty, it adds.

Key to health

It is a common conclusion that researchers round the world have also reached and which has given rise to free lunch programmes in many countries.

India, for instance, is said to have one of the largest school lunch programmes in the world, serving some 130 million students in 950,000 schools. 

The World Bank has encouraged governments of developing countries to put nutrition improvement programmes high on their policy agendas, noting that they are a cost-effective way to boost public health.

When the CDRF started its own pilot meals programme in 2007, it too saw the results of the free lunches.

Two years after its pilot programme was rolled out to schools in one county in southern China and another in the north, a study found that students there had better health, more stamina, higher grades and improved psychological conditions compared with those in similar schools who did not receive free meals.

They were also 1.4cm taller, had 15.1 per cent more haemoglobin in their blood and twice the lung capacity, the study found.CDRF’s report on its pilot project was handed to the State Council Development Research Centre, and the programme even got the support of then Premier Wen Jiabao.

The findings were included in a report entitled “Eliminating Poverty Through Development”, which drew the link between good nutrition and a better chance for a family or individual to rise from poverty. The report also found that the impact of poor nutrition on mental health and physical strength could cost China a loss in gross domestic product of as much as 5 per cent.

Other researchers have drawn similar links. They note that healthy schoolchildren can grow up to support the nation’s social and economic transformation.

But poor children tend to be anaemic, which lowers their energy level and makes it harder to concentrate. They are also less able to afford spectacles.

Rural children are often denied a high school education because they fail the entrance exams. And they fail partly because they suffer from poor health.

Hence, the CDRF is now exploring plans to provide nutritious food to pregnant women, babies and pre-school children in rural areas.

Not an easy meal

Of course, free lunch programmes have not been without their setbacks.

Money allocated for school lunches by the central government has not gone directly to the free meals – sometimes going to parents – while schools have found difficulties in opening and managing their cafeterias.

The nutritional value of some of the meals provided have also raised questions in some areas.

When Caixin did a check at Dounuo Primary School in Guizhou province this year, reporters found cheap vegetables with very little meat or eggs being served. Each student got half a spoonful of meat, doufu and cabbage, and half a spoonful of egg soup on top of their rice.

CDRF secretary-general Lu Mai also notes that attitudes in some communities towards nutrition may have to change before the programme can be called a genuine success. Many rural parents, he says, believe that it’s enough “to feed them white flour steamed buns”. 

And when confronted with questions about hunger among children, some local officials retort: “Isn’t this the way it was when I was growing up?”

Still, even for the children at Dounuo Primary, the free lunch programme is a marked improvement from what they had before.

School principal Cheng Ruilin said that many used to survive on little more than wild baby ferns boiled with salt, or rapeseed seedlings mixed with chillies.

Now, he said, many children eat better during school hours than they do at home.