Liu Yan, a 12-year-old primary school girl from a rural village in a remote region of China, did not expect that her wish to have lunch every day at school would come true thanks to the Internet.
A student enjoys a free lunch at school.
To her surprise, an online campaign started in April has prompted millions of netizens to give money to ensure she and others like her can enjoy free lunches.
Deng Fei, a journalist at the Phoenix Weekly magazine and an initiator of the campaign, said he felt unsettled when he learned that many students in mountainous regions of Southwest China's Guizhou province often go hungry.
Their lack of a steady diet has several causes. Not only are their families poor but their homes are also in a remote village, far away from schools.
Liu Yan is one of the students who often finds herself without anything to eat at midday.
Liu, a sixth grader in a primary school in Hongban village, Zhongjian town, Qianxi county, has to walk at least 8 kilometers to school every day.
The trek takes her more than two hours to complete. If she does not get up early and leave at six in the morning, when it is still dark outside, she will not arrive on time.
Most of the journey takes her along a muddy and bumpy mountain path. The road conditions become especially bad during rainy weather.
Usually, she finds it impossible to return home for lunch during the two-hour break she gets at noon.
"More than half of the other 173 students are in the same predicament that Liu is," Xia Weigui, headmaster of the school, told China Daily.
For Liu and many of her friends in the village, corn meal and pickled cabbage, which local farmers get from their fields, make up the bulk of their dinners at home. "My mother only cooks rice at festivals," Liu said.
Some of Liu's schoolmates bring homemade lunches to them at school. But Liu's parents rarely do that for her.
"They cannot get up early and cook for me, since they have to get enough sleep to do farm work during the day," Liu said. "And it's embarrassing if my friends see me eating corn meal."
Rather than be despised for her diet - as she fears she will be - and to avoid bothering her parents, Liu prefers to go hungry.
"You can tell who didn't have lunch, especially in the afternoon's physical-education class," said Liu Jinquan, a teacher.
Zhongjian town is one of the "hundred poorest towns" in Guizhou province and Hongban village is the poorest part of Zhongjian town.
According to Li Jian, education inspector for the town, the town contains six villages, each of which maintains a primary school. Of the roughly 1,000 students in the town, most have to walk an hour to two hours to go to school. "It's common to see pupils walking three to five kilometers to get to school," Li said, adding that the distance has led many pupils in the town and elsewhere in the province to miss out on eating lunch.
Deng, the journalist, learned of the situation after a local volunteer group, which had visited the primary schools, told various news organizations that many students in the village were going hungry during lunchtimes. Surprised, Deng decided to visit other schools and learn if conditions at those places were similar.
After his trip in Guizhou, Deng wrote about the students' difficulties on his micro blog at Weibo.com, a Chinese version of Twitter, and asked for netizens' help in giving free lunches to village students.
Deng, who has more than 24,000 followers on Weibo.com, was confident micro-blogging would offer a good way to raise money for charity because it ensured information could be dispersed in a transparent and efficient manner.
In the end, he decided the money raised should go to the Shaba primary school in Huaxi town, Qianxi county. The free lunch program officially began on April 2; since then, the 169 students at the school have been enjoying hot school lunches.
The campaign has so far proceeded in this manner: In accordance with an agreement reached between Deng's group and the local department of education, the volunteer group transfers the money needed to pay for students' lunch expenses through an appointed public charity fund to the local bureau that is in charge of monitoring the spending. Local officials and schools then work to ensure the program is running efficiently and to guarantee the safety of the food.
"The initial 20,000 yuan ($3,080) has been released and it helped students at the Shaba primary school get free lunches in April," said Li Jianhua, head of the education department in Huaxi town.
According to Li's calculations, a free lunch consisting of tofu, green vegetables, potatoes and a generous supply of rice costs 2.3 yuan for each student. "Considering the additional labor cost and electric fees, this will cost about 100,000 yuan a year for this school," he said.
"We understand it's our responsibility to be careful in putting this program into effect and that we must also ensure the safety of the food."
Yang Xun, a 34-year-old local, now find herself in the role of a cook. The school hired her through a job notice and pays her 800 yuan a month.
Yang confirmed that she buys basic foods from the town each week. She said the contents of the free lunches differ from day to day.
"They required me to obtain a health certification from the local health authority," she said.
"As long as there are students studying in Shaba school, the program will never end."
Elsewhere, Hongban primary school has reached an agreement with Liang Shuxin, a marketing planner at Tianya community, and his volunteer group.
Liang opened an online charity store at Taobao.com, which called on netizens to give money online to help the students obtain free lunches. He deemed 5 yuan to be the price of a "unit of love" and has since sold 85,000 units. By the end of May, he had received donations worth more than 430,000 yuan.
"Many kind-hearted donors gave 5 or 10 yuan," Liang said. "That may not seem like a lot to them, but it's an extraordinary contribution to the children."
Meanwhile, the goal of Deng Fei's program during the next five years is to give free lunches to students in 100 rural primary schools throughout China.
So far, Deng's campaign has raised more than 11 million yuan and helped students in 23 primary schools in Guizhou, Guangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong and Henan.
"We hope the government will take over this responsibility and enable all rural students to enjoy a free school lunch," Deng said.
Earlier this year, the county's education department started a project aimed at ensuring that students who bring their lunches to school can enjoy hot meals.
"We have provided each primary school with heating devices and made sure there is a supervisor helping the kids heat the food," said Long Shengyong, an official with the education department.
"The essential thing in guaranteeing all pupils in the county have a lunch is to persuade the kids' parents to prepare lunches for them," he said. "But many people don't want to take our advice."
Xu Mei, spokesperson with the Ministry of Education, released a group of figures at a press conference in February, saying about 12 million students in the middle and western parts of China are now benefiting from a project aimed at ensuring that students have a nutritious diet.