China / Society

China works to improve students' diets

(Xinhua) Updated: 2012-05-10 20:24

CHONGQING - Cold rice and a few slices of dried beancurd are all that Tan Biyue takes to school for lunch.

For the second-grader from Southwest China's Chongqing municipality, meat is a once-a-week luxury.

She carefully puts away the boiled egg her school rations out every day, taking it home to share with her grandparents.

Like most of her peers at Caoping Primary School in the mountainous town of Dongxi in Chongqing's outlying Qijiang district, Tan suffers from malnutrition and is shorter than urban children of the same age.

"Of the 58 students at school, 35 are staying with relatives while their parents work in faraway cities," said Tan's teacher, Zhang Kaiping. "Their families are often too poor to prepare nutritious lunches. Most students have only two meals a day."

Tan, too, is a left-behind child. Her mother, fed up with her tough life in the poor village, walked out when she was still a baby. Her father, unable to support the family on a meager farming income, spends most of his time in the country's south, working as a migrant worker.

However, there have been some attempts to rectify the situation. Starting in the fall of 2011, the central treasury financed a "free meals for kids" program to ensure adequate nutrition for students in the underdeveloped western region.

The central government is spending an estimated 16 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) a year to improve standards for school cafeterias in poor areas. The spending benefits about 26 million primary and middle school students in 680 rural counties, each of whom get a free lunch worth 3 yuan at school every day as a result.

But the program has yet to benefit Tan and her schoolmates.

"Only orphans and students from families living under the poverty line are entitled to apply for free meals," said Shuai Chenggang, principal of the nearby Chaiba Village School.

At Shuai's school, only two or three children are eligible for the free meals. At Tan's school, no one is eligible.

Of the 101,789 students in Qijiang district, only 3 percent enjoy free meals, said Gao Sicheng, chief of the local education authority.

In addition, no less than 80 percent of Qijiang's village schools lack the facilities and staff to cook for the students, even if they got the government funding for meals, said Gao.

The poor diets of students is an issue that has been on the agenda of many regions in western China, and local governments have increased spending to finance school cafeterias and provide nutritious food for children.'   Chongqing was among the first western cities to include eggs and milk in its school cafeterias. Government spending on nutrition programs has totaled 945 million yuan.

In northwest China's Gansu province, a government-financed project now offers a breakfast consisting of milk and eggs for rural students, whose traditional diet consists almost exclusively noodles and potatoes.

A report released by the China Development Research Foundation last year found that 12 percent of students in poverty-stricken areas suffered malnutrition, China Daily reported Thursday.

However, a poor diet is not just a problem for kids in rural or poverty-stricken areas.

The latest research by the Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety under the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the number of urban primary and secondary school students who ate fast food at least once a week increased from 1.9 percent in 1998 to 16.3 percent in 2008.

Although most urban schools have cafeterias, many students prefer to lunch at fast food restaurants or roadside stalls, where food safety is often lacking.

A 2011 study by the industrial and commercial administration of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, indicated that only half of the products sold at snack stalls located near schools was up to national food safety standards.

"Making lunch safe, nutritious and affordable for all students is a pressing issue," said Wang Panfeng, an associate professor at Capital Normal University.

"The government should enhance supervision to avoid the misappropriation of funds and ensure food safety," Wang said.

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