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Alleged embezzlement by school management boards leads to poor and innutritious meals

A school lunch of bun (rice vermicelli) and some slices of pork. Most schools blame rising food costs for the low quality meals they serve students, but a Thanh Nien investigation has learned that embezzlement by school management boards is likely the main cause of the poor and innutritious meals.

Most schools blame rising food costs for the low quality meals they serve students, but a Thanh Nien investigation has learned that embezzlement by school management boards might be the main cause of the poor and innutritious meals that have plagued Vietnamese school children for years.

A student at Dong Da Secondary School in Ho Chi Minh City says the lunches served by the cafeteria are so bad that he barely eats at all.

A parent of a student from the same school says his teenage son always complains that he is hungry after school because there is not enough food served during lunch.

Substandard school meals for students, especially those at kindergartens and primary schools, have for a long time been a matter of concern for both parents and educators.

More than 500 students at Kim Dong Secondary School in HCMC's District 5 have only rice, pork chops and mustard greens soup for their lunch everyday. So do the students at Bau Sen Primary School in the same district.

Truong Dieu Thua, the school's principal, said the school could not afford bigger meals.

"We charge each student VND18,000 (86 US cents) per meal, and at first we planned to hire a company to supply lunch with dessert and a light supper after.

"However, when we said we could only pay VND18,000 for each meal, no companies accepted our conditions."

A parent whose child is attending a kindergarten in the central city of Da Nang said she once saw a teacher in charge of food for the kindergarten buying a huge quantity of rotten fish and shrimp at the market.

"I am very worried about my child's heath," she said. "Who knows if the children are always fed with such substandard food at school?"

A parent whose daughter is attending a primary school in Hanoi's Dong Da District said she had recently dropped by the school during lunch several times.

She was unhappy to see that minced pork was often replaced by a piece of tofu or a slice of fried fish and a little soup.

While many school leaders say the problem is rising food costs and lack of funds, others claim there are more nefarious reasons for the unhealthy meals being served to unwitting children.

Nguyen Tien Dung, the principal of Lomonoxop High School in Hanoi, has sent letters to Thanh Nien since late last year in which he accused the school's board of directors of squandering school fees collected from students.

Dung attached receipts in his letters to prove that the board had approved unusual food expenses, with many food items having prices much higher than market value.

For example, Dung said, the prices of some vegetables approved by the board are four times higher than their actual prices, and the price of chicken in the books nearly doubles the market price.

He implied that the board has pocketed the differences.

Last year, a teacher at Quang Trung Primary School in Hanoi sent complaints to some newspapers, including Thanh Nien, and local authorities, accusing the school's leaders of renting the school's cantina out to a company and later hiring a food company to supply substandard meals to students.

After the case was investigated, the principal of the school was dismissed.

In the latest case, a group of teachers at Quang An Primary School in Hanoi lodged a complaint against the school's board of directors for siphoning off money from students' meal funds.

According to the teachers, the food supplied at the institution can serve only 700 students per day, while the school has 795 students.

In addition, the cooks reported that there were days when the chicken, pork and fish supplied to the school were spoiled.

Local authorities are still investigating the accusations against the board.

An employee of a company which supplies meals to primary schools told Thanh Nien that school meals are rarely worth what parents pay for.

"There is fierce competition among meal suppliers. Those who can pay higher "˜commissions' to school principals will win the supply contracts.

"When we have to pay commissions to principals, we will surely have to cut off spending on food to keep our profits.

"There is this principal who asked to be paid VND2,500 (as "˜commission') per meal and told us he would not hire us if we refused his request."

However, the source said not all principals asked for commissions. The meal suppliers, in return, gave them presents during Tet (Lunar New Year) or other holidays as a way to keep up the business relationship.

Another employee of a company which supplies meals for 22 primary schools in Hanoi, including some of the capital's most prestigious institutions, said the company had to waste a lot of time, energy and resources pampering school management boards rather than on supplying good food.

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