Central government program began in October and serves 26 million children in 700 counties
Zhang Lizhong watched students line up to fill their bowls with freshly cooked rice noodles at lunchtime.
The principal of Xinglong Primary School, which is in a remote, poverty-stricken village of Southwest China's Guizhou province, said he was pleased to see the 164 children are finally able to regularly enjoy the most important meal of the day.
"I'm not used to having lunch," said Huang Shuling, a 13-year-old girl, who is short and thin for her age.
Unlike many students in urban areas of China, where child obesity is becoming a problem, Huang's family could not afford to pay for meals at school before the free lunch program started in the village in January. "I just drank water if I was really hungry and waited to have dinner when I got home."
The central government launched a program in October that aims to improve nutrition for rural students in poor areas. The program has benefited about 26 million primary and middle school students in nearly 700 counties.
When it was introduced, Xinglong school would receive packed bread and milk from the Dafang county education administration every day, but it did not work out, Zhang said.
"Our students are not used to having bread and milk as meals," he said. "Also, sometimes supplies couldn't reach us because of the weather or road conditions."
After raising the problem with the education administration, the school was allowed to provide hot lunches, with a daily allowance of 3 yuan (50 US cents) per child.
The menu changed, too, to local favorites: beef rice noodles and stir fries.
"Every morning, teachers go to the Xiongjiachang village market to buy fresh vegetables and meat," Zhang said. "We try our best to make the meals nutritious, but I wish we could get some help or guidance from professional cooks."
Although many students are malnourished due to poverty, free school lunches will make them healthier, he added.
Huang finished everything in her bowl in less than 15 minutes.
"It tastes even better than my mum's cooking," she said, her smile showing exactly what a 3-yuan meal means for students in poor, rural areas.