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Revamp or Remove India Free School Lunch Program?

Revamp or Remove India Free School Lunch Program?
In Bihar, India 22 school children dies and dozens more became ill of contaminated school lunches. The food was made with cooking oil that had been stored in a used pesticide container. Now, parents and officials are questioning the reliability of the food and some children are even refusing to eat the lunches after the incident. The “Mid Day Meal Scheme” has been an integral part of India’s attempt to help impoverished children, and could now be facing its own end. Should the program that now feeds 120 million children a day and that has provided many of those children with their only meal of the day for so long face the chopping block? Or should the Indian government work to improve it?

While eating their daily meal of lentils, beans, rice, and potatoes the children complained that the food did not taste right. Shortly after, large numbers of them started to suffer from vomiting and diarrhea. Students were sent home to deal with the illness, but they did not find help there. The local private clinics were overrun with patients and could not deal with the sudden influx.

Akilinand Mishra, father of one of the students, told the New York Times that he tried to take his son to the clinic once he became ill. He was finally able to hitch a ride to the hospital, but his son died in his arms on the way there. Mr. Mishra stated in the interview, “It was poison that the children ate, not food. Food contamination doesn’t happen that fast. It was poison.” Bacterial contamination is relatively common throughout India and poisoning, although much more rare, has been known to happen in schools that take part in the program.

The Mid Day Meal scheme originated in 1925 in the Madras Municipal Corporation as a way to help disadvantaged children. The idea spread slowly through the country and in 2001 the government mandated that all states provide lunch to their students. According to the UN’s State of School Feeding 2013, India’s school lunch program has resulted in higher levels of student enrollment and lower levels of absenteeism. Due to low-income, many children are required to stay home from school in order to work, but with the promise of a free meal, many parents have started sending their children to school so they do not have to worry about feeding on their own pocket.

The Evaluation Study on Cooked Mid Day Meal did by PEO Planning Commission shows that only 13% of children receiving the free lunch consume fruit during meals at home on a daily basis and 33% get milk at home every day. Some surveys suggest that as much as 50% of children in India suffer from some form of malnutrition, thus these meals can play a very important role in helping these children grow into adults. But, according to parents, this may not be enough of an incentive to continue relying on the program. With contaminated food occurring regularly and corruption in all levels of the CMDM scheme, it is risky for parents to allow their child to eat at school.

That does not necessarily mean that there should be an end to the program altogether. While there are numerous issues that need to be addressed, the CMDM is the largest free lunch program in the world. Therefore it could easily be one of the most helpful if it were run properly. The problems with the overall implementation of the program are certainly outweighed by the positive effects it has already had and the even better results that could come if the program was improved.

– Chelsea Evans

Sources: New York Times State of School Feeding 2013 Performance Evaluation of Cooked Mid Day Meal
Photo: The Nation