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In rural China, it's not uncommon for schoolchildren to skip lunch, not because they're too busy, they're simply too poor. Well, thanks largely to the efforts of one man, 25,000 poverty-stricken children in China are now getting a free lunch every day. And indirectly, his efforts have helped millions more.
NPR's Louisa Lim has the story from Shaanxi.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: For 10-year-old Xie Xiaoyuan, just getting to school is an ordeal - her frostbitten ears a testament to this.
XIE XIAOYUAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: I get up at five o'clock, she says, then I comb my hair and start walking.
Xie navigates a mountain path in the dark, trudging through snowstorms and mudslides. Then she has to get a bus for about 10 miles. She hasn't time to eat breakfast.
XIAOYUAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: For lunch, I spend 15 cents on two pieces of bread and a drink, she says.
That's all she eats until dinner at home at 5:00. That's all her family can afford with an income of about $120 a month for five people. For a while, she even stopped going to school because they couldn't afford the bus fare. But they were told this is against the law.
Many of her fellow students at Hujiaying Primary School go hungry every day. Headmaster Bai Baojun says his biggest challenge is left-behind kids - those whose parents who've gone away to the cities to make money.
BAI BAOJUN: (Through Translator) About 80 percent of our kids have parents who've gone away to find work. For half our students, both parents have gone away. So they depend on the grandparents, who can't help with their homework.
LIM: China's growing income disparity can be seen here, not just in the dirt roads and lack of sanitation but in the very bodies of these kids. As they do their daily exercises in the playground, they're warmly wrapped up, since the classrooms have no heating. But one recent survey found 12 percent of children in the poorest rural regions are stunted due to malnourishment. They're on average two to six inches shorter than city kids.
One new grassroots program aims to change that by providing free lunches for countryside children.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING STOVE)
LIM: Through the Internet, it solicits donations of less than 50 cents, enough for one meal per child per day. These are then donated to schools in the poorest places in China. At this school the money pays for these basins of meat and tofu, which are being cooked in enormous metal vats. The school chef is cooking for more than 200. There's so much food in there he's actually using a shovel to stir the food.
BAOJUN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Headmaster Bai gives a speech to mark the first official day of free lunch at the school.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
LIM: Now, we're actually trying the free lunch. There's a spicy tofu dish, celery with meat, and mushrooms and greens. And it's actually really, really good. I would pay a lot more in a restaurant for this.
The kids line up eagerly. For most, this is their best meal of the day. Some, without parents here, even have to cook their own supper.
This program is the brainchild of Deng Fei, a campaigning journalist from Phoenix Weekly news magazine. But even he's been blown away by the speed with which the Free Lunch Project has caught on.
DENG FEI: (Through Translator) In eight months, we've raised $4 million in funds, 900,000 people gave us money. We've helped 162 schools give free lunches to 25,000 children.
LIM: He's been working closely with local authorities, who sometimes contribute funds - in this case, building the school canteen. Since he started, the central government announced it will expand its own nutritional support program. It'll spend two and a half billion dollars, providing extra nutrition to 26 million Chinese kids in the countryside.
Headmaster Bai believes Deng Fei's program prodded the government into action.
BAOJUN: (Through Translator) The government would probably have given some money for free lunches anyway, eventually but I think it would have happened later.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LIM: In the dining room, the kids are wolfing down their food, giddy with joy. But this program is facing challenges, including how to monitor all the schools that take part. Here in Hujiaying, there are plans for a two-track system, with better meals for those that can pay more. Apparently inequality is so entrenched in China that even within a poverty alleviation program, there are haves and have-nots.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.