Chinese rural children malnourished, anemic and poisoned
April 26, 2012Jing GaoOne Commentcharity, charity project, childhood anemia, children, Deng Fei, food scandal, food scare, free lunch, Free Lunch For Children, malnutrition, Mengniu Dairy, poverty, rural area, undernutrition, unicef
Approximately 40 percent of children in rural China are stunted as a result of maternal and childhood malnutrition, according to a 2009 UNICEF report. Corruption and incompetence at the local level have only made the matter worse by sickening even more children.
In Gaohan Village, Yunnan province, Yunxiang, a year and a half old, sits on her mother’s lap while eating potatoes.
Date: Mach 28, 2012
Place: Gaohan village, Baoshan Township, Yulong County, Lijiang, Yunan province.
Little Mei, 12-month-old, is still nursing. It has been half a year since she started to receive solid complementary food, basically flour and potato.
At 3,200 meters above sea level, the only crops this village grows are potato and buckwheat. Mei’s family is in utter destitution. They never have sufficient food. Fresh meat or vegetables appear on their dining table very few times throughout the year.
Little Mei, measuring 67 cm (2’2.4”) and weighing 6.2 kg (13.7 lbs.), is 8 cm shorter and 2.8 kg lighter than the nation’s average for a 12-month-old. Little Mei is diagnosed as suffering from severe malnutrition and physical and mental stunting.
In Gaohan Village, Little Mei is far from the only child that is poorly nourished. Day after day, potato and buckwheat flour have become the staples of children’s diet. Because of deficiencies of nutrient elements essential to infants and children’s growth and development, malnutrition is a prevalent problem in the village.
Rong Tongxi, three years old, lives in a village in Ledu county, Qinghai province. He is only 84 cm (2’9”) tall, and weighs 9.4 kg (20.7 lbs.).
Date: April 10, 2012
Place: Guocun Township, Hejian, Hebei province
Little Yu, a year and a half old, is diagnosed with moderate anemia. The doctor advised his family to treat it as soon as possible, otherwise, his physical and intellectual development may be irrevocably affected.
Mr. Guo, the director of the local women and children’s hospital, said that, when it comes to feeding and raising infants, traditional health beliefs prevail, even though most of these beliefs are unscientific. Infants tend to receive complementary food much later than recommended, and their diet is very monotonous and ill-balanced.
Lactating mothers are not eating properly as well. The traditional belief, that new mothers no longer need nutritious food after yue zi (month-long postnatal recovery), and above all, the financial strain, have compromised the maternal diet, which affect the quality and quantity of their milk.
In Guole’er Village, Yunnan province, Little Xia, a year and a half old, is diagnosed with severe congenital heart defects.
Date: April 9, 2012
Place: Zhenxiong County, Yunnan province
368 of the 665 students at Dingla Elementary School had symptoms of food poisoning, including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, and were rushed to the local hospital. Later, students said that they were forced to eat perished food for lunch.
“We ate rice, peas and gourds. The peas were stinky. The smell was terrible,” one student at the hospital told a reporter from China Central Television. “But we had to eat them, otherwise we would be fined. The teachers said if we didn’t finish them all, we would each pay a 10 yuan penalty,” another added.
Investigation into the large-scale food poisoning revealed that Dingla Elementary School has hired an unlicensed food contractor to prepare food for its students in unhygienic conditions. No supplier information of the food the contractor purchased can be found. Rice that students ate has no Best Before date or quality certification. The school kitchen has no refrigerator. All seasonings and food are piled directly on the floor of the storage room.
More than 300 students at Dingla Primary School in Zhenxiong county, Yunnan province, are hospitalized for food poisoning.
China’s total number of children suffering from stunting, standing at nearly 12.7 million, ranks as second highest in the world, after India, according to UNICEF, whereas data released by Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that the overall stunting rate among Chinese children under five is 9.9 percent in 2010.
In 2010, 12.6 percent of all Chinese children under five are anemic. The figure in rural China is much higher: approximately one in five rural children suffers from varying degrees of anemia, mainly due to an iron deficiency.
China has allocated 16 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) to a trial project carried out in 680 impoverished counties in the country, which ensures that starting from the spring semester of 2012, each of the 26 million students in counties covered by the project receives a daily subsidy of 3 yuan to improve their nutrition. Counties that team up with Free Lunch, a non-government charity program launched in early 2011 to raise fund nationwide for providing free lunch to children in impoverished areas, even have additional donations from volunteers to cover all three meals of students in their jurisdictions.
However, the loophole that undermines the cause lies in the handling of the fund. The lunch program has become a cash cow for self-serving school authorities and suppliers.
On April 20, an investigative report done by China Central Television found some schools in Guangxi province have been purchasing food at inflated prices. Eggs are 75 percent more expensive than their market price, whereas prices of pork and fried tofu are 25 percent higher.
Even though these schools did not spend money wisely, at least they have spent it on the proper diets. Deng Fei, the initiator of Free Lunch, insists that children be given food that are locally grown and freshly cooked to ensure hygiene and nutrition. He also believes that once a supplier is involved, his priority will be making a profit.
But the 3-yuan per head subsidy from the central government is hardly adequate for realizing its intended goal. In order to assure supply of fresh food for its hundreds of students, a school must at least build a student cafeteria with sanitary food service operations and hire additional employees to prepare food.
Li Depin, a principal of an elementary school in Guizhou province, found after calculation that, he has to hire at least 14 workers in order to cook lunch for the 1,782 students at his school. If he pays each one of them 800 yuan per month, the expenditure on their salary will amount to 11,200 yuan per month, or one eighth of the school’s annual budget.
When he approached the county government for grants to fund the personnel and the cafeteria, he got a point-blank refusal, “We have a tight budget. There is no more fund to allocate.”
That explains why the aforementioned Dingla Elementary School cut corners by compromising the food preparation process. Many more cash-strapped schools simply substitute convenience food for meals.
In Napo county, Guangxi province, schools use the subsidies to buy diary products from a supplier, who earns one yuan from every 3-yuan subsidy. A school in Xuanwei, Yunnan province, provides students with unbranded and dateless pastries from a nameless factory. In Qinghai province, schools hand out junk food they buy with the subsidies.
With food scares so rampant in China, there is always risk of contracting foodborne diseases from consuming processed food. But chronic undernutrition has impaired rural children’s immune system, making them particularly susceptible to unclean food. Schools in rural China suddenly have become a hot spot for food safety accidents.
On March 29, 86 students at a school in Zhijin county, Guizhou province, began to vomit and suffer abdominal pains. Their free breakfasts, which included a product by Mengniu Dairy, the largest milk producer in China, and bread, were suspected to be the cause. Mengniu blamed poor digestion of a handful of students and its psychological effect on the rest of the crowd. In a similar case, also involving Mengniu products, 251 students in Yulin, Shaanxi province, were hospitalized in April last year after they had drunk milk distributed by their school and got sick.
Mengniu dairy products and packaged bread are likely the cause of a food poisoning in Guizhou province that affected 86 students.
Deng Fei, the initiator of Free Lunch, wrote on his Sina Weibo microblog, “Food-related accident in Yunnan again?…The vituperative reaction from some people says we have set the moral standard too high and made the enforcement too difficult. Hey, this is weird. We’re talking about making boxed lunches for kids, not making an atomic bomb. Is it really so hard? So our government is so weak? So miserable?”
In a questionnaire issued by CCTV on a lunch project in Shaanxi province, a child wrote, “Hope the school can give each student an egg and milk on time every day. Don’t give us expired milk or smelly eggs… I suggest that the school be honest. Don’t fool people in order to make money. They seem free, but we are still billed several hundred yuan each semester.”
Below are photos of the food safety accident in Guizhou province that involved Mengniu products.
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