Not counting beans -- feeding China's rural students

Updated 2016-12-20 11:02:30 Xinhua

The remote hilly township of Sanzhiyang got its name, "three sheep," from a sad 16th century story.

Tucked away amongst mountains in southwest China, Sanzhiyang was so barren that local villagers could only offer three sheep as the township's tithe to regional administrators. The locals were hunters, not farmers and there was very little arable land.

Poverty ground on in Sanzhiyang for centuries to come. Until 2012, Sanzhiyang's children grew up on a diet steamed rice and soybean, one of the few things that would grow there.

When Meng Lianghong, who is now 12, went to the local boarding school five years ago, she used to take a bag of soybeans back to school each Sunday, which sustained her for the week.

"For each meal, I cooked two handfuls with rice. Sometimes,that was all I ate for two weeks," she said.

That same monotonous recipe was order of the day -- almost every day -- for the other 500 students at Sanzhiyang Elementary School. Headmaster Meng Wenwu said almost no one in the school enjoyed sports and some kids would faint during physical exercise.

Despite the growth of the last two decades, China still has a large poor population, about 70 million souls who live on less than one U.S. dollar a day. Malnutrition is common in the remote countryside. Hidden hunger - lack of micronutrient such as vitamins and minerals - has resulted in a marked difference in height and weight between urban and rural children. The China Development Research Foundation found the average height and weight of 13-year-olds in Sanzhiyang equal to urban 10-year-olds.

In 2011, a nutrition improvement plan for elementary and middle school students in rural areas began, offering four yuan (about 60 U.S. cents) per day for each student. Cash subsidies were given to schools, which could decide whether to build canteens or to outsource breakfast and lunch from caterers. For most schools in remote parts, canteens were the only option.

Today, Sanzhiyang Elementary School's well equipped canteen is serving pork, carrot slices, and cabbages for lunch. "It's not a feast, but much better than soybean and rice," said Lan Meng, who heads the school's general office.

China is a newcomer to subsidized school meals. The National School Lunch Program began in the United States as early as 1946, and so there is still a lot to be done if China is to catch up and make the program effective and sustainable.

The government has spent 67 billion yuan in the past five years with 33.6 million rural students benefitting. In November, Premier Li Keqiang agreed to expand the program to cover all rural students in the poorest areas by 2017.

Sanzhiyang's Lan has lobbied the government to increase the subsidy to offset inflation.

"Some parents wonder why there is so little meat in the lunches," he said. "But pork prices have risen for two years, and four yuan does not go very far."

Lan's concerns are shared by Lei Wencai, principal of Hongban Primary School in Guizhou Province. He said money that bought 17 kilograms of pork last year only buys 12 kilograms today. That means only 50 grams of pork for each student every day.

Professor Weng Zeren with Guizhou University wants the government to link the subsidy to the consumer price index and allow adjustments in accordance with inflation. Others who think school canteens are too expensive to build and maintain want more money put into the program. But it is not just about the money.

In some understaffed rural schools, preparing lunch gets in the way of the real work. Su Xiaojing runs a one-teacher school in a remote village in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. She teaches eleven first-graders and four second-graders. In addition to giving classes, she has to cook. It usually takes about an hour to cook after morning classes, not to mention time spent shopping.

Wu Shouzhuang, a principal in another rural school, said some older teachers couldn't cope with the chores, and it affects the quality of teaching, but most educators agree that there is no turning-back on the program.

At the very least, physical tests show rural students are stronger, healthier and smarter thanks to better nutrition. Eggs, milk, tomatoes and meat are becoming more common in students' breakfasts and lunches, supplementing the simple carbohydrates of buns and rice.

"Students in morning classes used to be complaining all the time, mostly related to the substandard breakfasts they ate," said Wu Guojun, a school principal in Lintao County, Gansu Province. "Now, as students have a nutritious breakfast at school, we rarely hear any complaints."

Sanzhiyang official Chen Jianhua said the subsidy -- around 800 yuan a year for each student -- is a substantial amount for struggling families. They can now invest that money in their farms while their kids grow up healthy.

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