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Unappraised Praise: Does China's School Feeding Program Actually Work?

It’s well known that many developing countries suffer from widespread malnutrition. China is no exception. Up to 10 million rural Chinese students suffer from anemia as a result of malnutrition, as their diet is predominantly starch-based and lacks meat, vegetables, or fruit.


To help alleviate this issue, China launched a nationwide school feeding program, or SFP, in 2012, investing 4.5 billion dollars throughout a 10 year period in order to increase the quality and quantity of food that rural Chinese students eat.


Rural China malnutrition among elementary students


Background


China’s SFP aims to provide rural students with 40% of their daily recommended nutrients, and allocates 4 RMB, or about 61 cents, per student per day. Once given the money, rural school districts and local administrators manage the program, purchasing, cooking, and serving the meals.


The SFP fulfills many conditions that have been previously identified as indicators of successful programs, such as well-organized schools, localized implementation, and routine supervision. However, despite receiving nearly universal praise, we don’t know if the SFP is actually effective in reducing malnutrition.


Is the SFP working?


One recent study from the American School Health Association investigated how the SFP has impacted malnutrition and anemia rates as well as the rural Chinese diet.

Nurses measured hemoglobin levels, anemia status, BMI, and height to measure development and malnutrition before and after the SFP was implemented.


Additionally, students were surveyed on what they had eaten over the past week, while school officials were asked about staffing, facilities, and meal preparations.


Contrary to expectation, there were noticeable benefits.


The anemia rate and hemoglobin levels remained stable, while the BMI and average height for age decreased. The student survey found that students ate more meat, milk, and eggs, but less vegetables, beans, grains, and fruits.


However, students still often failed to consume even 50% of their recommended daily allowance for nutrients.



How can China improve the SFP?


Given that China already meets many of the conditions for a successful SFP, the current situation suggests that low quality food caused by a lack of financial capital most likely led to its disappointing results.


Over 80% of the principals surveyed reported that the 61 cent per day budget was not enough to provide a nutritious meal, and also that local officials were not experienced or knowledgeable enough to run the SFP efficiently.


Overall, with the SFP being reasonably organized and having measurable impact, more money and better support should be provided to SFP administrators and local schools to help improve daily operations and decrease malnutrition in rural China.


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