The Mid-day meal scheme has a novel objective, and research across the world has confirmed that school meals do help in reducing hunger, increase school enrolments and attendance, and also help improve learning outcomes.
Many countries have these school meal programmes and in India, the concept of providing hot cooked meals in schools has a long history going back to Tamil Nadu which started the meal scheme in the early 1980s, and then a Supreme Court order made providing a cooked meal in government schools a legal entitlement.
Today the mid-day meal is the first meal of the day for most children and currently it covers more than 100 million children across 1.15 million schools. It also gives employment to 2.5 million women, mostly from SC/ST/OBC communities, who are employed as mid-day meal cooks and helpers and is arguably one of the best programmes in the social sector.
Unfortunately, incidents like the one in February this year, where nine students of a government school in Delhi got sick after having a mid-day meal which allegedly had a dead rat in it, or the incident in a primary school in Mathura, where two kids died after drinking adulterated milk, remind us that the system still has some serious flaws.
Right To Food Includes Right To Safe and Nutritious Food
Dr Vandana Prasad, national convenor of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and member of the Right to Food campaign, says that the right to food means governments should provide nutritious food and not just anything they like.
Even after a decade after the Supreme Court passed guidelines regarding nutritional standards of the mid-day meal, the Joint Review Mission set up by the government found mid-day meals having little impact on malnutrition among schoolchildren. Surveys found that during 2013-14 a large number of elementary school children were highly malnourished in 9 states.
As Dr Prasad noted, “Providing nutrition through one hot-cooked meal is not easy”, and that the way to deliver the necessary calories to students is by adding animal-based proteins which, unfortunately, is not cheap. For example, the Delhi Government was only able to incorporate eggs and bananas in its mid-day meal scheme.after allocating additional funds from its own coffers.
Experts believe that specific guidelines that recommend certain fruits, animal based proteins and leafy vegetables could help solve the issue of nutrition. Monitoring menus regularly in a more stringent manner and periodically testing samples for nutrient content may also be helpful in ensuring that such guidelines are followed.
Linking Aadhar to Mid-day meal
The government has issued recently guidelines making Aadhaar mandatory for receiving the benefits of government programmes and its recent orders relate to an Aadhaar requirement for children to access schools (even under their fundamental right to education), mid-day meals, supplementary nutrition (ICDS) and scholarships. These guidelines raise a number of ethical and practical questions, besides violating children’s right to education, nutrition and health.
More Collaborations needed between Private organisations and Government
It was a successful collaboration of ISKCON and TATA Steel Limited at Jamshedpur for 3 years which provided hygienic meals to the students of Government schools there, and now the expansion of automated mega kitchens will cover districts like Lohardaga, Gumla, Ramgarh, Bokaro and Chatra.
“In Ranchi, ISKCON has collaborated with CCL while at Hazaribagh, Akshaya Patra and Airport Authority of India (AAI) has given their consent to work in collaboration,” said Secretary of Department of School Education and Literacy Aradhana Patnaik.
Ms Patnaik further added that the centralised kitchen proposal will not just be restricted to major cities but other towns too have been included in the proposal. Akshaya Patra and AAI will also lend their service at Ramgarh. With Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), Bokaro, Akshaya Patra will cater to the need of children at Bokaro. Other major companies like HINDALCO, NTPC will collaborate with ISKCON at Lohardaga, Gumla and Chatra districts respectively.
So making the mid-day meal work well and provide safe and nutritious meals to children will need the combined efforts of the government and private companies to come together and defeat this giant called Hidden hunger plaguing India.