LIUZHOU, Guangxi: They say there is no such thing as a free lunch, but that is not the case for a group of schoolchildren in rural China.
Since last month, youngsters from the three poorest counties of Liuzhou, a city in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, have had their daily lunches paid for by the local government, as part of its commitment to support rural education and ensure educational equality.
Wei Wenfeng, a senior official with the municipal education bureau, said that more than 100,000 students are now benefiting from the subsidies.
Fifth-grader Jia Song (right) eats his lunch with his classmates at a primary school in Rongshui county, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, last Monday November 10, 2008. [China Daily]
Many come from ethnic minority groups such as the Miao, Dong and Yao, and live in remote underdeveloped mountainous regions, he said.
Most of these families earn less than 2,500 yuan ($365) a year, so paying 50 yuan a month for their children's lunches of rice and pickled vegetables was a heavy burden, he said.
But thanks to the new policy, children can now enjoy a decent meal every day, he said.
"It's so good having meat every day," 11-year-old Miao girl Jia Caixian said after finishing her lunch of pork slices and cucumber at a primary school in Rongshui county.
"All we have to do is bring 10kg of rice to school each month and the rest is free."
Jia's grandmother, Pan Cuirong, said the free meals have lifted a weight off her shoulders.
"I used to worry a lot that the girl might be underfed. I'm so happy they are now offering free lunches.
"We don't have to pay for anything: Textbooks, meals and lodgings, are all free," she said.
The free meal scheme is also making it possible for young people to stay on at school.
Dressed in his uniform, 16-year-old Lu Zhongwei looks no different from any of his classmates. But he would have almost certainly dropped out of school by now, were it not for the help he receives from the government and school.
Lu's mother died when he was young and his father was paralyzed, leaving him with his grandparents.
The free lunch and cash donations Lu gets have made it possible for him to stay on, as well as boosting his confidence for the future.
"I really want to stay at school and then go to college if possible," he said.