PHOTO: TRAN DANG TUAN
A student holds a lunchbox with a few grains of rice and edible roots
Dear Minister Pham Thi Hai Chuyen,
First of all, I would like to tell you something very honestly.
If a complete, thorough inspection into the quality of meals consumed by students in the highlands areas is not undertaken, it is very likely that reports from different agencies will claim the same thing that, despite difficulties, things are not as bad as they seem to the public.
However, I would like to share with you what my friends and I not only saw with our own eyes but also recorded on video.
Students' meals in highlands areas are of different kinds.
1. Some students do not have anything for lunch, because they literally have nothing to bring with them to school. In this case, if the students are studying at kindergartens, their teachers will take parts from others' rice balls to compile into portions for them.
2. Some students do not have rice, but edible roots like cassavas.
3. Some students have rice but their "food" is bamboo sprouts and salt.
4. Some students have rice and have real food but in very humble portions just a bit of dried fish or sometimes a small slice of meat.
Among the above-mentioned meals, the third, which has very little nutrition, is the most common.
For those students who receive funding for their lunch under the government's policy, it is a different picture: before the funding comes, they have the third kind of meal. When it comes, their meal is improved, but still plain.
Why are students yet to have decent meals, even though the government's funding policy has already covered most of them and some provinces have also initiated programs to support those not covered by central government funding?
The answer lies with how the funds are sent to students.
First, it takes a very long time before money reaches them.
In northern western highlands localities that we have visited, students did not get money until more than a year after the Prime Minister issued a decision on funding for day boarders at primary and secondary schools in 2010.
It took two years for five-year-old children, and 13 months for children of three-four years. Even after this time, not all students have received the funds.
The situation is blamed on late issuance or absence of guidelines for local authorities to implement the PM's decision.
Then, after such a long delay, the funds finally come and are given to the students' parents as back pay. And, you must know how it is when a poor family has some money, don't you? It is likely used to repay debts, or worse, hold small drinking parties.
In the end, authorities report that they have fulfilled their disbursement duty. But how about the objective of improving the nutrition of needy children's meals so their health is good enough to keep on studying?
Second, there is the matter of how the funds are disbursed.
To be honest, I do not understand the reasons behind the regulation that the funding is disbursed in November and April. As children study from September to May, what do they do in September, October and November?
I actually saw local teachers in several areas spend their own money to buy food to cook for students, while waiting for the funds to come. I also saw them make the purchases and delay payments.
So, the point is that the government's funding should not have come in cash, but rice and food that are cooked at the school for students, ensuring that the funding is spent on the right objective.
In fact, in a northern locality where local media recently reported that students had to have rats for meals, each student is supposed to receive VND500,000 (US$23.66) a month.
If only officials in charge had put their heart and soul into their jobs, considering looking after needy children on par with bringing up their own children, they would have been far more effective.
* Tran Dang Tuan is the former deputy general director of Vietnam Television. Since September 2011, he and several writers have raised funds to improve the quality of kindergarten students' meals in highlands regions through the project Com co Thit (Rice with Meat).
The letter was sent to Vietweek after Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in a recent meeting questioned social welfare officials over the fact that kids in highlands areas have to go to school eating cassava, corns and sweet potatoes, even though Vietnam is the world's leading rice exporter. His question sparked concerns about the lack of nutrition in meals had by needy children in areas that fall under the government's social welfare funding policies.