By Xinhua writer Liu Wei
CHANGSHA, June 1 (Xinhua) -- Wang Qiang (not his real name) has to walk two hours to school in the mountainous village of Xinhuang County, Hunan Province. But the 7-year-old enjoys school - and his free lunch there.
Students like Wang once endured hunger and health problems because their families were too poor to afford a lunch. This meant no meal for 10 hours. Most had to drink water to appease their grumbling stomachs.
Hunger caused malnutrition, which affected their physical and mental development. According to a report on nutrition and chronic diseases by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission in 2015, rural children under six were two to three times more likely than urban children to suffer low weight and developmental delays.
This troubled investigative journalist Deng Fei, who was researching rural problems across the country: "It shocked me. 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, he started Free Lunch for Children (FLC), the first public initiative to offer free lunches to students in remote, poverty-stricken areas, with the help of 500 like-minded journalists, lawyers, professionals, low-level officials and volunteers. 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 at least 16 billion yuan (2.35 billion U.S. dollars) per year 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 said in a speech on the sixth anniversary of the FLC that it 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: 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 the problems of poverty.
Many rural families are poor. Parents go to cities to make money, 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. That's why we introduced the commercial critical illness insurance program for rural children," says Deng.
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 just in one county since 2012.
Deng's team is working on other practical charity programs. One provides poor students with life and study supplies; one teaches rural children about personal safety; one builds movable dormitories for rural students who must walk long distances to school; and one recruits urban families to support rural orphans or left-behind children.
"We also run a program called E-Farmer Spring, which aims to help villagers sell farm produce to improve their incomes. This way, we attract parents of left-behind children back home," says Deng. 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 is built. We have succeeded in Xinhuang and Hefeng and we believe these programs can take root in other poor areas," says Deng.
He opens a map and starts drawing lines. Connecting these two poor counties together with a line, he points to Wuling Mountain, one of China' s poorest areas, covering parts of Hunan, Guizhou, Hubei and Chongqing, with a combined population of 36 million in poverty.
China pledged to lift 70 million people out of poverty in its 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) period. For any local government, this is a huge test.
Yao says government officials should work harder to solve real problems of the people, rather than thinking of climbing the political ladder. "We should combine social resources and government plans to better serve the people's needs."
Deng says the biggest challenge is getting enough people to help as urban volunteers cannot stay in the countryside for long.
He believes the priority is to train local staff and help rural young people to sharpen skills and start up their own businesses: "We aim to empower people to develop and grow on their own."
Wang Qiang is getting more than a free lunch and health insurance. His father has returned from the city to take part in the farming program.
"Thanks to Free Lunch," he says, "my dad stays with me."