The success of India’s Mid-Day Meal Scheme (formally known as the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education) have been documented since it was initiated in 1995. With the aims to improve the nutritional status of children, and enhance retention and attendance rates in schools, the Scheme provides prepared lunches on working days to every child enrolled in Government and Government aided primary and upper primary schools. The Scheme proposes a path to better health and enhanced social connectedness for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds by ensuring that children attend school regularly, eat nutritious meals and connect with their fellow peers. However, while the Scheme has been effective in improving attendance rates, scholastic performance and retention rates overall, the unintended consequences have had deleterious effects for the intended beneficiaries. These inadvertent consequences are visible both at the individual level and the broader societal level. To begin with, the lack of quality control of food served has negatively impacted the health of children. For instance, reports have indicated the presence of uric acid on the food grains used for the meal. Given the poor quality of food prepared, it is not surprising that many children have reported feeling unwell after consuming these mid-day meals. Further, during statutory holidays and vacation periods, when there is no provision to ensure food intake, the nutritional status of children who substitute their meals at home with the mid-day meals can be adversely affected. In addition to the harmful influence on the health of many children, it has also resulted in the disruption of the delivery of curriculum.
School lunch programs are not unique to India; countries like Finland and Sweden have been successfully providing free meals during school days to enhance children’s well being.
This is visible in that teachers tend to manage serving meals, which reduces their teaching time and leads to distraction from school activities. At the broader societal level, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme has been shown to reinforce already existing inequalities in India. These in turn, create and perpetuate experiences of social isolation. A striking finding in the state of Rajasthan was that children from lower castes were restricted from using school utensils and had to drink water in their cupped hands, while other children enjoyed using school utensils. The untoward effects appear to hinder the achievement of the goals of the Scheme. Undeniably then, the wellbeing of children is also disturbed. Although the Government has taken measures to resolve some key issues, drawbacks of the program still exist. Efforts being undertaken by the Government include a provision of central assistance for management, monitoring and evaluation at 2% of the cost of the food grains, transport subsidy, and cooking assistance, and a provision to ensure that mid-day meals are served during summer vacation periods in drought-affected areas. However, to address the gaps in the program, the Government should proactively seek to limit the influence of unfavourable outcomes on health, and the perpetuation of socio-economic inequalities. For this, the Government could strive to provide food supplements during statutory holidays and vacation periods not just restricted to drought- affected areas. Additionally, officials could regularly visit schools, and encourage teachers to initiate classroom activities and class participation by all students. These actions could help instill a sense of community belonging and curb experiences of social isolation, especially in communities plagued with stark inequalities. School lunch programs are not unique to India; countries like Finland and Sweden have been successfully providing free meals during school days to enhance children’s well being. While the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in India also aims to improve the overall health of the children, there is a lot of work to be done to overcome its limitations. I urge you all readers to learn more about India’s program by visiting their website and highlight possible shortcomings or oversights and propose solutions to these challenges to various political actors through their web portal. With corrective policy, problems in the program can be resolved, social isolation based on inequalities can be diminished, and the full potential of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme can be reached.
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