- Language Tips
There was no free lunch on Sunday for the organizers of a children's charity to mark its first anniversary and the raising of 24 million yuan ($3.8 million).
The only thing they were given free was a humble potato, to remind them that it once was an entire meal for many rural school children.
Students eat a free meal, including two eggs and a carton of milk, during a break at a primary school in Bozhou, Anhui province, last month. Zhang Yanlin / for China Daily
"Our mission is not over if there are still students in China who can only eat a potato as their lunch," said Xiao Longjun, from the China Social Welfare Foundation.
Xiao was speaking at a news conference in Beijing by the Free Lunch for Children Project, set up by 500 journalists on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, last April, and affiliated to the foundation.
As a result of their efforts more than 16,600 students in 137 rural primary schools are now enjoying a free meal each day.
But following recent food safety and graft scandals over government-subsidized school meals, the organizers warned that transparency about how their funds are spent, and food quality, were the major concerns that needed to be addressed to maintain credibility with donors.Schools sponsored by the project record on Sina Weibo the prices spent on food items each day, and the number of students who took school meals, said Phoenix Weekly journalist Deng Fei, one of the initiators of the project.
"We not only review the information that schools release online, but also do random telephone interviews with parents and local villagers to check whether schools forge the statistics," said Wei Chen, a volunteer who works for the project.
A supervisory team made up of parents, village committee members and teachers was also set up for each sponsored school to monitor its operation, said Li Chunxia, an official from Hefeng county's education bureau in Central China's Hubei province.
Currently, more than 4,000 students from 43 village schools in Hefeng enjoy a free school lunch thanks to the project, Li said on Sunday.
In October, the central government launched a project allocating 16 billion yuan annually to subsidize nutritious school lunches in 680 cities and counties.
However, some schools selected for the project in Guizhou province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region only provided packaged food, and food hygiene problems were reported.
The People's Daily reported in late March that about 86 pupils were treated in hospitals in Zhijin county, Guizhou, after they had eaten a subsidized packaged meal.
Deng said some schools in poor regions were reluctant to provide freshly cooked meals because they could not afford to run a canteen or hire cooks, and it was easier to shift the responsibility for food safety on to packaged-food providers.
In the worst scenario, some corrupt school officials may think about receiving bribes from food companies to win orders, Deng said.
"All schools we sponsor are required to buy vegetables and fresh food from local villages or markets to shorten their transportation route and cut potential food safety hazards," he said.
Also, school principals, teachers and kitchen staff have to eat the same food as the students to guarantee they take food safety seriously.