India’s mid day meal scheme was recently in the news when 23 children died after eating school lunches contaminated with pesticides in Bihar, India. Despite this tragedy, India’s program is helping to nourish thousands of children each day. The program dates back to 1925 when the British introduced a program for disadvantaged children. It went through many changes over the years, but mid day meals are now served to all primary and upper primary level students at government partnered schools.
The current program has two main goals: to increase nutrition and access to education. The guidelines include a cooked meal with 550 calories and 12 grams of protein in primary schools, and 700 calories and 20 grams of protein in upper primary schools. The program is funded 75 percent by the central government and 25 percent by the state government. The cost of cooking, infrastructure, and paying cooks is shared by school and state government and differs from state to state. Cooking cost is the largest expense, making up 53 percent of the total cost. The Mid Day Meal Scheme is the world’s largest feeding program, reaching 120 million students in 1.2 million schools. The program hopes to improve enrollment, as well as retention and attendance rates of students.
However, the loss of 23 students indicates that the program is failing to meet all of its goals. While officials took deep interest in the quality of the program in its earlier days, it has evolved greatly over the years. “In most places, it is a matter for the teachers to manage. In some places, NGOs or private contractors do the job. The scheme is better managed in south Indian states, but in the northern part of the country the situation is pathetic,” said Ambrish Rai, convenor of the Right to Education Forum, an umbrella body of NGOs working in the field of education. The operations are very complicated–funding the projects, employing cooks, and delivering meals can all be a burden for schools without proper infrastructure and cooperation from the government.
“Government agencies are not doing the monitoring. Even if there are committees at some places, they are not functional. They submit reports sitting at their tables without having visited schools. How would the government ever know what is happening in the name of mid-day meal scheme?” said Mohammed Irfail, a member of the Right to Food campaign.