LIANGSHAN (Sichuan) – He pulled his sooty little hands away from the fire, blowing on them to relieve the heat.
Shama Daguo, 12, is well used to the dangers of getting singed when cooking dinner. There is no one else to do it since his parents are working far away from their hardscrabble village of Sijijue, in the remote mountainous region of Liangshan in Sichuan province.
Night after night, he boils potatoes and makes sour vegetable soup for himself and his younger brother, 10.
Around the neighbourhood, other families too are preparing dinner. Almost invariably, the meals are a thin spread of boiled potatoes – eaten dipped in chilli sauce – and vegetable soup, or buckwheat buns roasted over wood fires.
Families of five or six typically crouch on the ground, over their potatoes and soup for their biggest meal of the day, as is customary in this predominantly Yi ethnic minority area.
In the mornings, many children go to school on empty stomachs, according to teachers at the local village school.
Malnutrition in China’s poorest rural regions like Liangshan has left the physical growth of 12 per cent of children stunted, says a survey carried out last year by the official China Development Research Foundation.
That explains why parents in the region are grateful for a new grassroots programme called Free Lunch that aims to feed their children one square meal a day at school.
Since last November, the 105 pupils at the local primary school have had rice and vegetables – and a weekly meat dish – for lunch, five days a week.
Head teacher Yu Cong, told The Straits Times: ‘Previously, the children brought one or two baked or boiled potatoes to school as lunch. Or if their families were doing well at the time, they would bring some white rice in a plastic bag, with some chilli and salt.’
He added: ‘The lunch we are now able to provide makes a big difference to them, not just to their nutrition, but to how they pay more attention in class, have more energy to play and are more enthusiastic about coming to school.’
Free Lunch, a charity group started last year by a group of Chinese journalists and now run under the government- backed China Social Welfare Foundation, feeds some 22,000 children in 155 schools across 16 provinces in China.
A leading example of a new wave of Chinese charities raising money mostly through social media, Free Lunch urges the public to fund lunches costing three yuan (60 Singapore cents) for rural children via Weibo or Chinese Twitter.
The programme has been so successful that it has prodded the Chinese government into speeding up its own plan – announced in 2008 – to provide milk and eggs for impoverished children in rural areas.
Civil society activism in China fuelled by social media works well not just in raising funds and awareness, but also in pushing for much-needed transparency in how funds are used, even as Chinese charities continue to be plagued by rumours of corruption, said Mr Xiao Longjun, vice-secretary- general of the China Social Welfare Foundation.
The headmaster of each school participating in Free Lunch has to send out a Weibo message stating how much was spent on lunches each school day to help track where the money has gone, Mr Xiao told The Straits Times.
There is still a long way to go in solving the country’s malnutrition problem even as much of urban China gives the impression of great prosperity.
Mr Xiao said: ‘Sometimes I post on Weibo pictures I take of the children and their schools, and I get comments like, ‘Why are you posting pictures from 10 or 20 years ago?’ Actually, those are pictures I took on a school visit just the week before.’
Twelve-year-old Shama Daguo (above, middle) tucking into a dinner of potatoes and soup that he cooks every night. A new charity, Free Lunch, has stepped in to provide daily meals for the 105 children at the local primary school in his village of Sijijue in Liangshan, Sichuan province. — PHOTOS: SIM CHI YIN/MAGNUM FOUNDATION
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