42% of Indian children under age five are underweight – double the rate of sub-Saharan Africa.
India is also home to 1 in every 3 malnourished child in the world. Last January, Manmohan Singh, while addressing the country, said that ‘the problem of malnutrition is a matter of national shame’.
In 2001, the Indian Government formally mandated a school-feeding program: the Mid Day Meal Scheme. The program seeks to address issues of food security, lack of nutrition and access to education on a national scale. While the primary objective is to provide free cooked lunches to school children, other objectives include improving the nutritional status of children, encouraging poor children to attend school more regularly and helping them concentrate on classroom activities, thereby increasing the enrollment, retention and attendance rates.
India’s Mid Day Meal program is the world’s largest school feeding program, reaching out to about 120 million children across the country. The overall program is thought to be successful and has raised student enrollment rates across India; however, states have implemented the scheme in various ways and the recent Bihar school lunch incident has caused a backlash to the program. Earlier this summer, more than 23 school children died after consuming contaminated free meals in Bihar that were cooked in the school kitchen. It was later found that the meals contained toxic levels of monocrotophos, an agricultural pesticide (read more here). It’s evermore clear that meals must be made in hygienic facilities and that food testing is a necessity.
I first heard about the Mid Day Meal program in an economic development class in college. I was skeptical about how this program could realistically be implemented in a country the size of India. It may seem simple on paper, but there are several logistical difficulties in carrying out such an intervention. Currently, researchers at the Poverty Action Lab are evaluating whether different delivery models that can improve the impact of the government’s mid-day meal program on the health and learning of lower primary school children. 375 schools will be randomly assigned to one of 5 groups that determine how the school will get access to meals (centralized system with fortified meals, centralized system without fortified meals, award scheme that incentivizes schools, semi-decentralized system, and a control group with the standard government meals program). Researchers will measure the impact of all of these interventions on child nutritional levels, school attendance, and learning outcomes (see here for details). While the study is in Orissa, I was able to accompany the research team to the Naandi Mid Day Meal facility that is responsible for cooking and delivering meals to 1,000 schools in and around Hyderabad.
Uncertain about what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to see that significant efforts were made to keep the facility clean and hygienic – this included having visitors cover their shoes. From start to finish, the process seemed to be extremely efficient: delivery of grains/rice, cleaning the grains/rice, cooking the rice/dal, packing the finished product, and preparing for delivery. Fresh food from a preset menu is made every morning – in massive quantities. Each item is made in a separate area in the facility and all vessels are cleaned daily. The meals are taste-tested and delivered to the respective schools in containers for lunch. While the organization sends the appropriate overall quantity to the school, it is the school’s responsibility to have the teacher taste the food and serve the appropriate quantity to the children.
|Dal ready to be delivered to schools|
It was quite encouraging to see how the Mid Day Meal Scheme is being implemented. While we don’t know the true nutritional impact of the program yet, visiting the facility made me realize that with the right intentions, efforts, and support, government programs can be extremely effective. Just think – if this facility were in Bihar, perhaps we wouldn't have seen such a tragedy.