Free lunch feeds our country's future

By Huang Shuo, March 4, 2011

When I was a child, my parents often told me that there is "no such thing as a free lunch," meaning I shouldn't take petty advantages. However, free lunch truly does exist, and it is becoming a popular type of government-sponsored welfare program. In fact, China's neighbor India is one of the concept's most zealous promoters.

In 2000, the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF), a nonprofit organization based in southern India's Karnataka, instituted a program to provide free lunches using grain distributed by the central government of India for five schools in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka. Within a few months, the organization received about 100,000 requests from other schools hoping to take part in the project.

Hence, APF started delivering free lunches to public schools nationwide and established central kitchens to manufacture lunches in accordance with international food safety and nutrition standards. The source of the food and subsidies used for free lunches mainly come from the government, which manages the use of public funds and demands that menus and account books be available to the public.

India pledged to end childhood dystrophy by 2015 as part of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The APF free lunch project, helping to sustain a growing number of the nation's pupils, greatly contributes to achieving that target. Yet starvation still remains a major concern for the world's second most-populous nation. In April 2010, the Economist reported that India was ranked 65th out of 84 countries in the global starvation index for 2009, only slightly higher than North Korea and Zimbabwe.

The program not only addresses the problem of child malnutrition, but also improves the quality of education for poor children. Sharing meals together is conducive to boosting communications among kids and beneficial to their psychological development.

The annual cost for the free lunch programs in India amounts to around US$2 billion, sponsored jointly by the national government, state government and private donations. Specifically, 44 percent comes from government subsidies, 46 percent from private donors in India and about 10 percent from overseas donors. APF hopes that 5 million children are able to enjoy a healthy and nutritional lunch through its efforts by 2050.

Other countries have also instituted similar school lunch programs for elementary and middle school kids. The U.S. first instituted free and discounted-lunch programs for primary school students in 1946, enrolling more than 30 million students by 2008, 18 million of them from low-income families. Japan employs dieticians to manage student nutrition, and all students aged 5-12 within its national education system have access to a healthy, nutritious lunch. As a result, childhood obesity in Japan is much lower than other countries.

Despite India's and other nations' success with free lunch programs, China has yet to propose a nationwide lunch program that would have a tremendous impact on the futures of millions of these poor students. Recent research shows that malnutrition is affecting 12 percent of children in poverty-stricken areas in China's less-developed regions. Primary school children and adolescents are the future of our society and the main engine for economic growth.

As a developing country, China should learn from the example of similarly-populated India and take the initiative to end child hunger and improve the education of its youth. The nation's future is our children.

Huang Shuo is a Beijing-based freelance writer. He can be reached at

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