For China’s ‘Left-Behind Kids,’ A Free Lunch

NPR’s Louisa Lim reports on journalist Deng Fei’s efforts to provide nutritious lunches for schoolchildren in China’s countryside. The children are caught on the wrong side of China’s wealth divide: most have at least one parent who has moved away to work, some are several inches shorter than the urban average due to malnutrition, and there is inequality even in the program set up to help them.

For 10-year-old student Xie Xiaoyuan, just getting to school is an ordeal. On a recent day, her frostbitten ears are testament to just how difficult the trip is.

“I get up at five o’clock,” she says, “then I comb my hair and start walking.”

Xie navigates a mountain path in China’s remote Shaanxi province 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.

“For lunch, I spend 15 cents on two pieces of bread and a drink,” she says.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or so the economic theory goes. But that’s no longer the case for Xie and the 25,000 poverty-stricken children in China who now receive a free meal, thanks to the “Free Lunch for Children” charity campaign set up by a Chinese journalist.

Indirectly, his efforts have led to the government announcing it will provide nutritional support for 26 million of China’s poorest children every day.

While childhood obesity expands in China’s cities, China Daily reported last year on “chronically underfed” children in poor rural areas. One post at Ministry of Tofu showed a group of rural children on their long and perilous daily trudge to fetch water in drought-hit Sichuan, while another used images of empty chairs to vividly illustrate the lives of families split by economic migration.