By Liu Wei （China Features）
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.
Many children in rural China have to endure hunger because their families are too poor to afford lunch. This means no meal for almost 10 hours plus walking up to two hours to school in mountain areas. Most drink water to appease their grumbling stomachs.
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.
“It shocked me,” says Deng. “I couldn’t believe thousands of children are still struggling on one meal a day despite China’s rapid economic growth. They said there’s no such a thing as a free lunch. Why couldn’t we make it happen?”
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 (39 million U.S. dollars) 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 than16 billion yuan to properly feed poor students in rural areas from their first year at school.
But its 3 yuan for a meal is not enough. Many schools cannot build a canteen or hire a cook, so they provide just milk and bread.
Deng says FLC still has a big role to play: “Our program is still going strong. On the one hand, we provide free lunches to children in poverty-stricken areas not covered by the national plan; on the other, we give money to help schools needing infrastructure and resources.”
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.
“Corruption is not a problem – every penny is marked down for transparency,” says Yao. “The students are no longer hungry and they love learning. Our students often rank top in the city.”
Deng is glad to see more children having a free lunch, but he says poor children are still trapped in poverty.
Many rural parents go to cities to earn a living, leaving their children with the grandparents. There is no timely treatment when they get sick. “Even for better off families, a serious disease is quite likely to throw them back into poverty,” says Deng. “That’s why we introduced the commercial critical illness insurance program for rural children.”
The national critical illness insurance program and the commercial insurance go hand in hand, with government, family and the charity each contributing.
Xiong Min, Deputy Mayor of Hefeng County in Hubei Province, says the program has helped more than 400 families in just one county since 2012.
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.
Critics say the problems of China’s rural poor are too great to solve through micro-philanthropy, but Deng says 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 will be built. We have succeeded in Xinhuang and Hefeng and we believe these programs can take root in other poor areas,” says Deng.
As more Chinese children are freed from hunger, Deng has set his eyes on Africa where thousands of children have neither breakfast nor lunch and are stunted by malnutrition.
In September 2016, Deng decided to bring his FLC model to Africa and he made it with the help of two other foundations the next year.
Since March, the campaign has served almost 1,200 children at six Chinese-supported primary schools in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The slum is home to some 700,000 people, half of whom are children living on one meal a day.
“Schooling is not their priority if they can’t afford to eat. Their children could drop out of school anytime,” says Yin Binbin, head of the FLC African team and founder of Dream Building Service Association, a Kenya-based NGO.
Deng showed Kenyan children eating their free lunches on his microblog, but received a lot of criticism. “Not every donor could understand the significance of supporting underprivileged children in Africa given the number of poor kids in China,” says Deng.
Hunger and poverty have hindered the development of many African countries. “Now China has robust growth, why don’t we try to help more under-developed countries?! ” Deng says.
As well as an initial 1 million yuan from Beijing-based Pearl Humanitarian Rescue Institution, the campaign has set up its own foundation in the U.S. and started fundraising in the U.S. and Europe to support its overseas projects. Deng reassured his followers that all Chinese donations would support Chinese children.
Many African countries have supported the campaign, and promised to help monitor food safety and finances. FLC is in talks with schools from various countries and plans to bring free lunches to 10 countries, including Uganda and Ethiopia, by the end of this year.
“When FLC is established here, we propose to put other programs like the commercial critical illness insurance into practice,” says Deng. “We hope our work in China will also shed light on dealing with African problems such as hunger and public health.”