Lamphun – Seated, the pupils at Ban Nong Pla Sawai School anxiously wait for their free lunch.
At the canteen, they will be served a special dish: freshly cooked eggs. What’s special is the eggs come from the pen behind the classrooms, just a few meters away.
The benefits of high-protein foods such as eggs is that they make children smarter, stronger and taller.
In short, having eggs three times a week helps prevent stunted growth, weak mental development and poor immune systems.
Supree Bausingsauy, the secretary general at the Rural Development Foundation says “scientific studies have long shown the correlation between low protein intake and diseases as well as how it affects height and brain activity.”
“In distant provinces like this one in northern Lamphun, improving health of kids is the first step to assisting rural communities,” he says. “In cities children tend to eat better and as a result perform better in school.”
“Ironically, we have kids in the outback who don’t eat enough while in cities like Bangkok, the problem is overeating.”
But Supree says it is evident that the difference between success and failure in the development of young Thais is often determined by how well or badly they do in classrooms.
Nong Pla Sawai School is one of the 6,000 learning institutions countrywide that participate in the egg-bearing program.
It all began almost three decades ago, recalls Supree, back when agro giant Charoen Pokphand Food (CPF) sponsored efforts to provide proper nutrition to provincial kids.
In reflecting on the results today, VPF CEO Adirek Sripratak says the company was inspired by His late Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who worked so hard during his reign to alleviate provincial folk from poverty and hardship.
The Northeast and Northern regions were particularly hard hit by poor health conditions and a shortage of good schools. Many impoverished households simply could not afford to put meat on the table in those early days.
Many of the rural programmes also owe much to the work undertaken by the PDA (Population and Community Development Association), which was under Meechai Viravaidya, an economist and family planner.
Meechai started by providing rural farmers funds that served as low-cost loans to cultivate chickens and other livestock.
“The funds serve as seed capital,” Meechai explained. “Once they understand how capital works, they can do almost anything.
“Rural folk then did not have much money and no bank would give them loans because they did not have much asset or collateral to speak of.”
Meechai began assisting these communities with a program to farm chickens. “Hens would be bred for eggs that could feed the villagers as well as supply them with fresh produce to sell in the market.”
Often, Meechai would to his surprise find that the villagers became so attached to the birds, they could not part with them. “Some raised them in the house, even slept with them,” he laughed.
“They had so little then. These chickens were quite invaluable and they became part of the family.”
By the time CPF embarked on its program on a much bigger scale, the country was moving at breakneck speed to industrialize. The gap between rural and urban societies was also growing wider.
To narrow it, the program was able to make farming so profitable that it was able it convince a generation of young Thais that farms too hold a good future for them.
Here, they can be their own bosses and the income earned would be comparable to wages in the city. Life in the countryside was much better, more relaxed and cheaper because there was not the degree of retailing and consumerism, which often deplete their savings.
To be sure, the program helped reduce urban migration and gave back pride to rural folk of their heritage and station in life.
This was achieved in part by by making schools the pillar on which provincial communities could enhance business and commerce.
It was here that the kids learn new skill sets that would prepare them to deal with the challenges in a fast changing world.
With the cooperation of schools, provincial authorities as well as other sponsors, CPF expanded the free egg lunch program.
At the same time, the company also wanted to impart farming skills to children that are useful when they look for work or start their own farms.
The Thai saying that it is “better to teach people how to fish than give them free fish” is well understood by Thais everywhere.
Giving them fish would feed them for a day. But giving them the means to fish would feed them a lifetime.
So it was with this goal of teaching them to feed themselves for a lifetime that changed the fortunes of many young folk.
It starts with looking after the pen. The eggs had to be collected.
The hens need to be checked for sickness. The feed had be bought and the eggs had to be sold.
All these tasks bring along invaluable lessons for children.
Everyday new eggs have to be counted and stored. When the eggs are be sold the cash must be recorded. This teaches responsibility and accountability.
Ultimately, this requires students to do good bookkeeping.
When children learn accountancy at a young age, it prepares them better for the point they enter the workforce.
It also teaches them to take pride in their labor and that it pays to be hardworking.
Indeed, it sounds like a “kung fu” story where the sifu teaches his student that everyday tasks like sweeping the floor, carrying heavy buckets of water and climbing steep places were part of the training to build muscles and speed.
In the CPF case, the beauty of the project is that it’s geared for expansion. With the accumulation of cash from goods sold, the school finds new avenues to invest the hard earned capital.
New ventures could include the rearing of other livestock or the cultivation of cash crops.
All these things would bring higher returns, increase their knowledge about farming as well as maximize their production capacity.
To kick in the program, CPF would make clear that some of the initial funding is a long-term loan that would have to be paid back over time to be reused as capital to fund other villages.
Because it is not completely free, the villagers tend to take greater care of the capital they raised and deploy. It is after all, not other people’s money, but their very own.
Today, one of the most significant contributions is the new farming methods schools are teaching students. Pupils now wear protective gear, they keep the pens clean and the they make sure the birds are safe and not contaminated.
As a result Thailand has one of the better records for safety when it comes to chicken rearing. If possible, everything is housed under a roof and totally protected from outside elements such as wild birds that could spread disease like avian flu that has become so deadly in recent years.
When bird flu breaks out, farmers are forced to cull their flock to prevent its spread. Unchecked it could ruin the entire industry.
More than 22 million chickens were culled in South Korea alone recently. Millions more were culled in China.
Thailand has been spared. As a result. Thailand became a beneficiary from its good business practices. It now ships chicken meat to affected countries such as South Korea, China and Japan.
CPF CEP Adisak says the outbreak means affected countries have to import chicken meat and eggs from safe countries like Thailand.
In the last quarter, CPF sold three times more chicken than before because of bird flu, he revealed. This includes meat CPF produces from its large indoor farms as well as those it buys from contract farmers and suppliers such as the small-scale pens.
Top: Children of Ban Nong Pla Sawai get ready to consume a free egg lunch at the canteen.
First inset: Students wear modern protective attire when they tend the hens in an enclosed pen.
Second inset: Supree Baosingsauy, secretary-general of the Rural Lives Development Foundation. says the program boosts the health of village kids.
Below: By using modern methods of chicken farming, Thailand was spared the bird flu. Local farmers now sell chicken to affected nations that had to destroy their poultry to halt the flu’s spread.
By Cimi Suchontan