Free food for poor rural children
When he was an investigative journalist, Deng Fei used to try to guess the ages of children he met in villages. He was shocked to find out some who looked 7 or 8 were actually 12 or 13.
Children in some villages had to endure hunger because their families were too poor to afford lunch. “It shocked me,” said Deng. “They said there’s no such a thing as a free lunch. Why couldn’t we make it happen?”
In April 2011, with the help of 500 like-minded Chinese journalists, lawyers, professionals, officials and volunteers, Deng started Free Lunch for Children (FLC), the first public initiative to offer free meals to students in remote, poverty-stricken areas.
In the past six years, it has raised 270 million yuan (US$41 million) and fed 190,000 students a day at 738 schools.
FLC inspired a government plan. Since 2011, the central government has earmarked more than 16 billion yuan to properly feed poor students in rural areas from their first year at school.
Deng is glad to see more youngsters having a free lunch, but he said poor children are still trapped in poverty.
Many rural parents go to cities to earn a living, leaving their offspring with grandparents. Often there is no timely treatment if they get sick. “Even for better-off families, a serious disease is quite likely to throw them back into poverty,” said Deng. “That’s why we introduced the commercial critical illness insurance program for rural children.”
The national critical illness insurance program and the commercial insurance go hand in hand, with government, family and the charity each contributing.
Xiong Min, vice governor of Hefeng County in Hubei Province, said the program has helped more than 400 families in just one county since 2012.
Deng’s team is working on other practical charity programs. One provides poor students with living and study supplies; another teaches children about personal safety; a third builds movable dormitories for rural students who must walk long distances to school.
One of the programs recruits urban families to support rural orphans or left-behind children, and another helps villagers sell farm produce to improve their incomes so they can stay home with their children.
Critics say the problems of China’s rural poor are too great to solve through micro-philanthropy, but Deng said 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 will be built. We have succeeded in Xinhuang and Hefeng, and we believe these programs can take root in other poor areas,” said Deng.
As more Chinese children are freed from hunger, Deng has set his eyes on Africa where thousands of children are stunted by malnutrition.
In September last year, Deng decided to bring his FLC model to Africa and he did so this year with the help of two other foundations. Since March, the campaign has served almost 1,200 children at six Chinese-supported primary schools in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya.
FLC is in talks with schools from various countries and plans to bring free lunches to 10 countries, including Uganda and Ethiopia, by the end of this year.