With tackling malnutrition and illiteracy at its heart, India’s Mid Day Meal Scheme continues to be one of the country’s most successful projects.
It is nearly lunch time at the government school in Byatarayanapura, a locality in the city of Bengaluru, Karnataka. Four large steel tubs of food await the children’s arrival at the quadrangle. The food arrives at around 11:00am, piping hot and ready to be served to over 600 students from primary, upper-primary, and secondary schools.
On the menu today is bisibelebath – a rice-based dish made with local vegetables, lentils and spices. On other days, a similar meal follows, with rice typically being a staple. Supplied by Adamya Chetana, a non-profit organisation, food is served across the city to many such government schools as part of India’s country-wide Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS).
The National Program of Nutritional Support to Primary Education, popularly known as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, and recently renamed the PM Poshan Scheme, supplies free lunch for every child in government and government-aided pre-primary (below five years), primary (ages six to ten) and upper-primary (ages 11 and 12) schools. It was officially implemented in 1995 to boost enrolment, reduce dropouts and increase attendance rates, while also improving nutrition and health outcomes.
A centrally-sponsored scheme serving 120 million children in over 1.27 million schools, India’s Mid Day Meal Scheme is easily the world’s largest school meal programme.
“I would say one of the main objectives of any school meal programme around the world, and more so in India, is to increase the attendance. It is also economical for the parents, who think that if my child goes to school, they will at least get one meal. That way, the scheme is a very good intervention to bring children to school,” explains Rita Bhatia, a nutrition expert who has extensively worked with NGOs and UN agencies dedicated to public health, food security and nutrition.
From a gender lens, the scheme ensures that more kids – especially girls – attend schools. From a social as well as cultural perspective, it is common for daughters in India to help out their mothers and contribute to housework, while the father goes out to earn, and her brother goes to school. Often, due to financial constraints, girls are stopped from pursuing higher education so that her brother can.
Deeksha Sudhindra, a Teach for India Fellow who teaches at the Byatarayanapura school, explains how the meal scheme benefits girls’ education: “I know a lot of girls in my class, even the younger ones, who are very involved in the kitchen and they do a lot of labor there. For meals that are not included, like breakfast and dinner, they have to cook for the entire family, often as big as ten people.” She went on to explain that if the girls didn’t get lunch at school, it is likely that they would’ve had to stay back at home, and prepare it themselves. “So having one meal taken care of in school definitely helps them that way.”
At about 12 noon, Byatarayanapura school students run down the stairs in throngs, carrying plates they brought from home, and crowding around teachers and other staff serving food. Laden with a healthy serving of bisibelebath on their plates, they start sitting in circles or lines, ready to dig in. A few students bring out their tiffin boxes, with food brought from home.
“Many of our students are from financially weak backgrounds, and parents are not able to prepare meals to send with their wards,” says Sumithra D, the principal of the secondary school. “These meals help students stay more focussed in class,” adds Padmavathamma HN, the principal of the primary school, which, along with the upper-primary and secondary schools, are set on the same premises.
The scheme outlines the minimum requirement of nutrition in each child’s meal, such as 100 grams of food grains per meal, 50 grams of vegetables and five grams of fat in a primary school student’s meal. The central and state governments either provide schools with the required food grains, tools and assistance to make meals at the school itself, or outsource the food preparation by working in association with NGOs like Adamya Chetana, which has been supplying food to Byatarayanapura school for 15 years.
Poorna Prazna, a volunteer at the NGO, provides insight, “If the MDMS is not run in a centralized kitchen, the school has to take up the additional burden of arranging for food. At Adamya Chetana, we try to procure ingredients directly from the farmers or wherever it is grown, avoiding middlemen. We also have cooks, drivers, accountants, etc, hired to cater to the scheme.” In this way, the scheme also creates employment opportunities for the local community.
However, sustaining a scheme as widespread and ambitious as this comes with its challenges – the most significant one being the quality of the food served. “What the government prescribes on paper is different from what the children eat” R. Gopinath, a scientist at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), tells us. Reports about rotten ingredients being used, children falling sick, or contaminants being found in food, impedes the smooth implementation of the Mid Day Meal Scheme.
While the poor nutrition value of mass-produced food continues to raise concerns, NGOs like Adamya Chetana voluntarily take sustainable and effective steps to ensure that the children consume nutritious food.
“We will always look for the nutrition to be intact with respect to the food, so that children get all the nutrition. We cook using steam, created using briquets of urban dry waste. This waste is converted to fuel, and the steam helps in retaining nutrients. We even use the rice starch, by adding it to the sambar, so that all the nutrients are still intact” Poorna Prazna from Adamya Chetana tells us.
Apart from plant-based ingredients, introducing nutrition-dense animal-based food like dairy, eggs and meat has long been in the works. Milk, for example, is provided for breakfast in Byatarayanapura, right after the morning assembly. However, the shelf-life of milk, and its propensity to adulteration makes it a rather tricky addition to the scheme on a wider scale. Eggs, however, are non-cumbersome to implement and make for a filling component of any meal; they can be easily boiled, distributed and consumed. Packed with protein and essential vitamins (D & E), “one egg or two eggs a week can make a world of difference in the child’s development and growth” says Rita Bhatia, a nutrition expert.
“Since the last academic year began in July 2022, the students have been getting one boiled egg each, twice a week, with the alternative of a banana or a peanut chikki,” the primary school principal Padmavathamma HN tells us.
Religious and caste differences have prevented a country-wide implementation of providing eggs as part of the scheme. Consuming non-vegetarian food is considered ‘lowly’ as per the Hindu caste system. The deification of animals (especially cows) by upper caste Hindus adds another layer of restriction to what is acceptable as food and what is not. Additionally, the glorification of the Hindu religion, and the consequent sidelining of other religions and their practices, has been central to the politics of India’s current ruling party. Such dogmas have led to the vilification of non-vegetarian foods.
As a result, eggs were introduced as part of the meal scheme in the state of Karnataka only in 2022. The proposal was protested by some religious communities lobbying for vegetarian meals in schools. For instance, Dr.Tejaswini Ananthkumar, who is the chairperson of Adamya Chetana, was part of those who argued against the introduction of eggs in children’s meals, saying it was ‘exclusionary to many students who are vegetarians.’
In the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, which was the first to launch a scheme to provide free meals to students back in 1962, eggs have been part of the scheme for years and are provided every day. Today, fourteen states and union territories in India are providing eggs to students under the Mid Day Meal Scheme.
As Rita Bhatia puts it, “It’s the right of the child – good nutrition. So they’re denying a lot of these children, especially the ones who need it the most, who are meat eaters and their diet has always included animal-based food. But it has become more political than about nutrition. Nutrition is politics.”
A definitive hurdle in ensuring quality of food and level of nutrition, apart from the politicisation of it all, is the value of labor. The middlemen involved in the acquiring, cooking, and transporting of food and ingredients are poorly compensated.
R. Gopinath provides insight, “The remuneration to the cooks and helpers is very low. Some states give an extra amount of money to their workers, but they bear it from their own state resources. But the prescribed amount is 1,000 Rupees (£10) per month, and the working days are something like 20 days a month, at least.”
The state glorifies those hired under the Mid Day Meal Scheme by terming them to be ‘honorary workers’ and by giving them the status of a social service volunteer. However, these cook-cum-helpers are financially deprived themselves, 90% of them being women, mostly single women and widows.
The exhausting levels of bureaucracy to initiate change doesn’t help either.
“The nutritional aspect is handled by the Ministry of Health. And then there is the Ministry of Education, and of course, the Ministry of Women and Child Development. So one of the biggest challenges is the convergence among the ministries or the departments. But then again, if things really have to be done, they can be only done at the village or the district level. In many states this model is working very well and it has a lot to do with the governance,” says Rita Bhatia.
While logistical, budgetary and political concerns continue to hinder a more effective implementation, the future appears to be fairly promising. Some states, for instance, have started a breakfast model in schools, which, if successful, could be implemented at the national level. Additionally, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have started receiving a Food Security Allowance if their school cannot provide midday meals daily.
The government has also committed to supply fortified rice – which is rice with added micronutrients – in every government-facilitated scheme by next year (2024). This would be a game-changer for the Mid Day Meal Scheme and overall public nutrition levels.
Finally, while individual schools, like the one in Byatarayanapura, are extending the free meal system to secondary and higher secondary school students, policy makers and researchers are actively pushing for the government to recognise and implement such efforts at a central level, so that the scheme can benefit a larger population of children.
As Rita Bhatia puts it, “The meal is teaching millions of children”, and with some shove and a push, it could teach millions more.
Co-written by Chavi Mehta
Featured image by Hope for Children (RawPixel)