Family Life  School Lunch    About this project       Home
Free Lunch
How civic activism - fueled by social media - is giving China"s rural kids better nutrition

He pulled his sooty little hands away from the fire, blowing on them to relieve the sting. Shama Daguo, 12, has become accustomed to the dangers of getting singed in cooking dinner for himself. There are few other options, however, since his parents are away working far from their hardscrabble village of Sijijue, in the remote mountainous region of Liangshan in Sichuan province. Night after night, he boils a pot of potatoes and makes a basin of sour vegetable soup for himself and his 10-year-old brother.

Around the neighborhood, other families are preparing their dinners too. Almost invariably, the meals are a thin spread of boiled potatoes—eaten dipped in chili sauce—and vegetable soup, or buckwheat buns roasted over wood fires. Families of five or six typically crouch on the ground, over their potatoes and soups for their biggest meal of the day, as is custom in this predominantly Yi ethnic minority area.

In the mornings, many of the children go to school on an empty stomach, say teachers at the local village school. Malnutrition in China's poorest rural regions has left the physical growth of 12 percent of children stunted, according to a survey carried out in 2011 by the official China Development Research Foundation. Parents here are very grateful for the new grassroots program, Free Lunch, which feeds their children one square meal a day at school.

Since November of 2011, the 105 students at the local primary school have had rice and vegetables, and a meat dish once a week, at lunchtime five days a week. Head teacher Yu Cong, said: &The lunch we are now able to provide them makes a big difference: it’s not just to their nutrition, but to how they pay more attention in class. They have more energy to play and are more enthusiastic about coming to school."

Free Lunch, a charity group, was started in 2011 by a group of Chinese journalists and now run under the government-backed umbrella China Social Welfare Foundation which currently feeds some 22,000 children in 155 schools across 16 provinces in China. A leading example of a new wave of Chinese charities raising money predominantly through social media, Free Lunch urges the public to fund 3-yuan lunches for rural children via Weibo, the popular Chinese version of Twitter.

Civil society activism in China these days, fueled by social media, works well not just raising funds and awareness, but also in pushing for much-needed transparency in how funds are used, even as Chinese charities continue to be plagued with rumors of corruption, said Mr. Xiao Longjun, vice secretary general of the China Social Welfare Foundation.

The headmaster of each school participating in Free Lunch has to send out a Weibo message stating how much was spent on lunches each school day, helping the charity and the public track where the money has gone, Mr. Xiao said. Still, there is a long way to go in solving the country’s malnutrition problems despite China's greater impression of economic boom. Mr. Xiao said: &Sometimes I post on Weibo pictures I took of the children and their schools, and I get comments like "'Why are you posting pictures from 10 or 20 years ago?'" Mr. Xiao continued, "Actually, those are pictures I took on a school visit just the week before."