HomeWorld NewsMid-day meal plan struggles to feed India's hungry students

Mid-day meal plan struggles to feed India’s hungry students

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India’s mid-day meal scheme is governed by the Food Security Act

India’s mid-day meal scheme, the world’s most ambitious free school feeding programme, resumed in April after a two-year hiatus during the pandemic. But re-starting the scheme is proving to be a challenge for many schools, reports Astha Rajvanshi.

With the closure of schools, millions of children who relied on free meals went hungry during the pandemic.

In January, Alfisha returned to Shankarwadi Mumbai Public School two years after the Covid pandemic forced schools across India to shut down.

The 13-year-old was excited to reunite with her friends and teachers, but most of all, she looked forward to lunchtime when she could finally eat a free, hot meal.

“My mother is sick, so she can’t always make lunch for me and my siblings,” she said.

But the meals, which are distributed under a massive government scheme, didn’t resume until early April, leaving Alfisha hungry and disappointed for another two months.

“I felt very sad because my friends and I used to eat lunch together,” she said, describing their pre-pandemic ritual of sprinkling cumin powder over the bowls of ‘khichdi,’ or rice and lentils, that were usually served and shared among the girls.

During the lockdown, Alfisha began skipping lunch at home. Now, she finds it difficult to concentrate in class, especially during her favourite subject, science.

Bishow Parajuli, who directs the United Nation’s World Food Program in India, says the reason is simple: “A hungry child cannot pay attention to Maths or English or Science or anything.”

The mid-day meal scheme, which first began in the southern city of Chennai (Madras) in 1925, has been instrumental in feeding nearly 118 million Indian children like Alfisha. Renamed PM Poshan last year, it covered more than 87% of students enrolled in government schools across the country before the pandemic.

Image source, Astha Rajvanshi

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Millions of children who relied on free meals went hungry during the pandemic.

Lauded by educators and economists, the scheme has not only ensured positive nutritional outcomes by eliminating hunger and malnourishment, but also by keeping children – especially girls and those from disadvantaged backgrounds – in school.

“I’ve seen kids gulp down the hot meals in a flash,” said Mr Parajuli. “The impact they have on their hunger, alertness, and potential learning cannot be overstated.”

But re-implementing the scheme after a long hiatus is proving to be challenging in many schools.

In rural areas, many face delays in the delivery of raw materials like grains and lentils used to cook the meals while schools in the cities are yet to sign contracts with centralised kitchens that cater for the children.

In March, Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, urged the government to restart the scheme, noting that the pandemic has affected children.

“As children are returning to schools, they need even better nutrition,” she told parliament.

Last year, the Global Hunger Index ranked India at 101 out of 116 countries, well below neighbouring Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan, as well as poorer and more politically volatile countries like Cameroon and Tanzania in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The National Family Health Survey, conducted from 2019 to 2021, found that one-third of all Indian children under the age of five were stunted and underweight, with little to no improvement in child nutrition levels since the previous survey was conducted in 2015-2016.

In some states – notably, the economically advanced Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south – the proportion of underweight and student children even increased.

Global food security experts attribute this acute malnutrition to widespread poverty, endemic hunger, rapid population growth, pockets of weak governance and poor health systems.

But the pandemic has increased these vulnerabilities, particularly in rural and slum settlements, where access to services and opportunities for employment is scarce.

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The scheme has helped children – especially girls and those from disadvantaged backgrounds – stay in school

To plug the gap in government provisions, many NGOs and self-help groups are stepping in to distribute the meals themselves, often leading to mixed, uneven results.

At Shankarwadi in Mumbai, for example, some students receive free meals through the ‘Teach for India’ programme, which partners with government schools across Maharashtra through private investment.

Others rely on their teachers to buy them lunch.

Irfan Anjum, a government school teacher who has taught at the school for over 12 years, says mid-day meals are “a present from god” for his students.

In his class of 26, at least eight to 10 students don’t bring lunch from home daily or carry any money to buy food.

“These kids come from very impoverished backgrounds,” he explained. “So many of them go hungry when the meals aren’t distributed.”

Since the school reopened, often the 49-year-old teacher has bought samosas or sweets for his class from the local vendor.

“The children start crying when they can’t bear the hunger any longer,” he said. “I feel like it’s my duty to feed them.”

Mr Parajuli said the challenges can only be solved when the federal government works with state governments to make sure the meals reach the children regularly and in time.

“There needs to be some hand-holding,” he said.

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The mid-day meals are distributed under a massive government scheme

What sets India’s mid-day meal scheme apart from other countries is that it is governed by the Food Security Act: “The law enforces that children are fed as part of the school environment,” Mr Parajuli said.

Under the law, not only does the Indian government put aside funding for the scheme, it also ensures that those funds are used to feed children through programmes like the Public Distribution System and Integrated Child Development Services.

“That’s a great thing,” says Mr Parajuli, because it means that “children can eat, families can have some [economic] relief, and the government can achieve positive results in child development”.

With the scheme slowly resuming, both teachers and parents want to ensure that their children return to school – and eat.

Shahanoor Ansari, who lives in a slum settlement in Mumbai’s Jogeshwari area, struggled to feed her family when the lockdown wiped her husband’s monthly income as a carpenter.

“We were getting by on fistfuls of rice,” said the 33-year-old during a parent-teacher meeting.

Ms Ansari finally sighed with relief when schools re-opened in January and meals resumed in April.

“I was only worried about feeding them before,” she said. “But now, I can once again hope that they will become doctors one day.”

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