When he was an investigative journalist, Deng Fei used to try to guess the ages of children he met in some villages. He was shocked to find out kids who looked 7 or 8 years old were actually 12 or 13.
Children in some villages had to endure hunger because their families were too poor to afford lunch.
"It shocked me," said Deng. "They said there' s no such a thing as a free lunch. Why couldn't we make it happen?"
In April 2011, with the help of 500 like-minded Chinese journalists, lawyers, professionals, officials and volunteers, Deng started Free Lunch for Children (FLC), the first public initiative to offer free meals to students in remote, poverty-stricken areas.
Over the last six years, it has raised 270 million yuan (39 million U.S. dollars) and fed 190,000 students a day at 738 schools.
FLC inspired a government plan. Since 2011, the central government has earmarked more than 16 billion yuan to properly feed poor students in rural areas from their first year at school.
Deng is glad to see more children having a free lunch, but he said poor children are still trapped in poverty.
Many rural parents go to cities to earn a living, leaving their children with the grandparents. There is no timely treatment when they get sick.
"Even for better off families, a serious disease is quite likely to throw them back into poverty," said Deng. "That' s why we introduced the commercial critical illness insurance program for rural children."
The national critical illness insurance program and the commercial insurance go hand in hand, with government, family and the charity each contributing.
Xiong Min, Deputy Mayor of Hefeng County in Hubei Province, said the program has helped more than 400 families in just one county since 2012.
Deng's team is working on other practical charity programs. One provides poor students with living and study supplies; one teaches rural children about personal safety; one builds movable dormitories for rural students who must walk long distances to school; one recruits urban families to support rural orphans or left-behind children; and one helps villagers sell farm produce to improve their incomes so they can stay home with their children.
Critics say the problems of China' s rural poor are too great to solve through micro-philanthropy, but Deng said his programs have a role in shaping government policy.
"Charities cannot and will not replace the government. But so long as the government, enterprises and charities work together, a social empowerment model will be built. We have succeeded in Xinhuang and Hefeng and we believe these programs can take root in other poor areas," said Deng.
As more Chinese children are freed from hunger, Deng has set his eyes on Africa where thousands of children have neither breakfast nor lunch and are stunted by malnutrition.
In September 2016, Deng decided to bring his FLC model to Africa and he made it with the help of two other foundations the next year.
Since March, the campaign has served almost 1,200 children at six Chinese-supported primary schools in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The slum is home to some 700,000 people, half of whom are children living on one meal a day.
"Schooling is not their priority if they can't afford to eat. Their children could drop out of school anytime," said Yin Binbin, head of the FLC African team and founder of Dream Building Service Association, a Kenya-based NGO.
With initial 1 million yuan from Beijing-based Pearl Humanitarian Rescue Institution, the campaign has set up its own foundation in the U.S. and started fundraising in the U.S. and Europe to support its overseas projects.
Many African countries have supported the campaign, and promised to help monitor food safety and finances.
FLC is in talks with schools from various countries and plans to bring free lunches to 10 countries, including Uganda and Ethiopia, by the end of this year.
"When FLC is established here, we propose to put other programs like the commercial critical illness insurance into practice," said Deng. "We hope our work in China will also shed light on dealing with African problems such as hunger and public health."
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