By Sonakshi Samtani:
Mid day meals in Indian schools date back to 1925. In the 1980s, three states had universalized a self funded mid day meal program for primary school kids, and by the early ’90s, there were twelveÂ states with a mid day meal program financed through their own resources.
In 1995, the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (NP-NSPE) was launched as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme, with a view to enhance enrolment, retention and attendance; simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children. In 2001, the Supreme Court reminded them, in the form of an order, directing all state governments to introduce cooked mid-day meals in primary schools within six months.
However, this scheme has faced constant scrutiny and criticism over issues like the quality of food served, and the discrepancies or corruption in the public distribution system. All of this has led many researchers and policy experts to call the MDMS a failure. However, the problem lies with the disastrous implementation of the scheme. When implemented properly, it delivers cheap meals that lead to improved attendance and classroom teaching, also providing safe nutrition to children who would otherwise starve. The shortcomings commonly attributed to the MDMS are not inherent to it; rather, they exist due to the lack of a political will.
One of the first surveys on the mid day meal, by Dreze and Goyal (2003), highlighted several good consequences of the scheme, such as improved attendance rate, child nutrition, and social equality. Interviews revealed that the introduction of the MDMS improved not only the attendance of children, but also made them more likely to stay after the lunch break; it has also proved helpful in eradicating hunger. In areas where hunger is endemic, the midday meal might be the only thing saving children from chronic malnutrition.
According to another report by Farzana Afridi, published in 2008, the findings suggest that for as low a cost as 3 cents per child per school day, the scheme reduced the daily protein deficiency of a primary school student by 100%, the calorie deficiency by almost 30% and the daily iron deficiency by nearly 10%, at least in the short-run. Therefore, the program had a substantial effect on reducing hunger at school and protein—energy malnutrition. Singh et al. (2012) tested the long term impact of mid day meals in Andhra Pradesh as a safety net for children affected by drought. Interestingly, the children who received midday meals were able to reverse stunted growth and catch up with the children that were not affected by drought, while the children who did not receive mid day meals remained stunted.
Moreover, in areas where they have been properly implemented, mid day meals have proven to improve children’s learning. However, it is still not sure whether increased learning ability is a result of improved attendance or better nutritional status.
Yamini Aiyar, a senior research fellow and director of the Accountability Initiative, refers to serious issues in implementation of the MDMS, especially in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In some instances, there is a marked reduction in the quantity of food served. While some schools stopped serving meals for months, in some places, teachers were found preparing meals instead of teaching, and the hygiene conditions were dismal.
Non-governmental initiatives, like that by Akshaya Patra, an organization based in Bangalore, aim to fight hunger and malnutrition in India by implementing the Mid Day Meal Scheme. It has been working since 2001 not just to fight hunger, but also to bring more students to schools and provide food for education. Today Akshaya Patra is the world’s largest (not-for-profit run) mid-day meal programme serving wholesome food to over 1.4 million children from 10,661 schools across 10 states in India.
In spite of various shortcomings in its implementation, there is still a way ahead for the MDMS. It was a good first step, but the government needs to tread the path carefully if we want our children to be nourished and not just fed. There are many discussions around how the problems in its implementation can be dealt with, and one of the possible solutions being debated is a partnership between private entities and non-governmental organizations. This will complement nutritional intake, while offering safe meals and a variety. There have been many suggestions and debates with respect to reforms in the MDMS, such as offering pre packed food to ensure minimum nutrient consumption. A clearly defined public-private nexus is a promising prospect with respect to countering the problems associated with the current implementation of the scheme. In addition to providing an incentive for education, an improved MDMS would ensure a consistent effort towards dealing with hunger and malnutrition, two of the biggest problems plaguing the young population today.