Weibo.com / kayaliang
A picture circulated on Weibo of a carton of milk and piece of bread that make up a free school lunch for students at the Suode primary school in Fenghuang, central Hunan province in China.
BEIJING -- Five local Chinese education officials were sacked this week amid rampant speculation that they were stealing from a national lunch program, prompting a nationwide online debate over how this nation of 1.3 billion is feeding its more than 194 million K-12 students.
The five officials were dismissed from the Fenghuang school district in the central Hunan province after it was revealed they were serving substandard meals to the children, sparking outrage and raising questions about whether they were pocketing the money instead.
The terrible meals at Suode Primary were first exposed last month when a volunteer teacher at the school, Liang Xuyue, took a photo of the "healthy" lunch and posted it on China's Twitter-like service, Weibo.
The meal, a 20-gram piece of bread and a 200-ml carton of milk, was a far cry from the ministry of education's recommendation that free school meals for poor students should consist of meat, eggs and milk.
Liang noted that the school had also been supplied with seven cases of expired milk.
Influence of social media
The scope of China's national lunch program is daunting. The government allocated 16 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) in 2012 to be used to provide free lunches for approximately 26 million poor rural students. That means just 3 yuan (48 cents) is available per student.
By contrast, the National School Lunch program run by the USDA in the United States budgeted $11.1 billion in 2011 and served 31.8 million students. Taking into account students who pay within the plan for subsidized meals, the American program was able to budget $2.86 for free meals per student.
More than 880,000 comments were posted on Weibo about the scandal, many suspecting like Liang that school officials were lining their pockets with lunch money.
"I've said it before, when it comes to money it is impossible for us to believe these officials without supervision!" wrote one Weibo user. "We should send these Ministry of Education officials to the forests to experience starvation!" declared another. "Let them suffer!"
Some Weibo users pointedly posted pictures of American school lunches side-by-side with the Suode lunch for comparison.
Hunan province education officials were forced to respond quickly to the outrage, reflecting social media's growing power in influencing how justice is served in China. The school's headmaster, two deputy headmasters and two Fenghuang County education officials were all summarily removed from their jobs.
'Kids need hot meals'
But the scandal has evolved beyond a simple case of naked graft and the mistreatment of these children. Many in China are now asking serious questions about the lunch program – not just about the pitiful amount spent per child, but the very makeup of a school lunch.
"In China the quality of life differs in various areas, so there is no unified national standard for what lunch should be like," Deng Fei, a former journalist for China's Phoenix Weekly news magazine, told NBC News.
Deng started a free lunch program after a reporting trip last year to rural schools in the relatively poor province of Guizhou. The concept was simple: private donations would be used to construct kitchens in poor schools so that children could have what is often their only hot meal of the day.
In mid-2011 as part of an Education Nation series, NBC News visited Baiyun Middle School, a rural school in Hunan that had recently opened one of Deng's kitchens. The students were poor – sons and daughters of migrant workers who make on average less than $40 a week.
As the noon time bell rang, 212 students dashed out from classrooms, steel bowls and chopsticks clanking as they lined up to receive a simple meal cooked by staff in the newly built kitchen: a generous square of rice, some stir-fried vegetables and tofu.
The meal was hearty, tasty and perhaps most importantly, cheap.
For Deng the meal summed up what he and many netizens believe is the biggest problem with the government's school meal plan: an over-emphasis on staples like milk and bread instead of Chinese options that are cheaper, nutritious and more filling.
"I understand the difficulty of some rural places, but after almost one year we should have made some progress," Deng said. "Enough of the milk and bread; these kids need hot meals."
Several teachers and program directors at Baiyun confirmed what a recent Stanford University study in China had discovered and published last year: a healthy, balanced lunch led to improved academic gains and more animated students.
Millions of parents no doubt agree – as does a ruling Communist Party that has emphasized education as a way to elevate socio-economic conditions for its people and maintain social stability.
NBC News' Yanzhou Liu contributed to this report.
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