India Offers Students Free Midday Meals as Incentive to Stay in School

Indian school children wait for their midday meal at a government school on the outskirts of Hyderabad. (Photo: Noah Seelam / AFP-Getty Images)

India is offering children from poor families free hot meals in an effort to get them to stay in school.

When India celebrates its 61st Independence Day, or National Day, from British colonial rule on Aug. 15, kids in government-aided public schools in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh will be treated to mouth-watering dishes like khichdi (made from lentils and rice), upma (savory dish made from semolina) and halwa (pudding or sweet dish also made from semolina), to keep them in school so they can learn.

In what has been billed as the biggest lunch program in the world, India targeted 140 million students under the midday meal scheme during the last fiscal year (April 2007-March 2008), up from 90 million students.

Studies have shown that most of the children from the poorer strata go to school on an empty stomach. The midday meal, mainly served in government-aided schools, helps attracts them to educational institutions. So the scheme serves two purposes: improving nutritional levels and increasing attendance.

Although is not implemented in every government-aided across the country—the government provides free lunches to children studying from classes 1-7 (age 6-12)—the scheme has resulted in increased overall enrollment with girl students topping the list. There has also been improvement in children's nutrition and health and in their keenness to study.

It has been estimated that over 1,200 liters of sambar (lentils mixed with water) are cooked in two hours each day for children in kitchens in southern India. Up north, the kitchens have roti (unleavened bread) making machines that can roll out 12,500 rotis in less than one hour.

Of the 9.7 million children who die before they reach the age of five globally, India accounts for 2.1 million, though the mortality rate has declined by 34 percent between 1990 and 2006.

India still carries a disproportionate amount of the burden as it accounts for 21 percent of children under five years old who die.

According to the State of the World's Children 2008 report on Child Survival, released by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the major causes of child mortality are neonatal disorders (37 percent), pneumonia (19 percent), diarrhea (17 percent) and AIDS (3 percent). An estimated 70,000 children under the age of 15 are infected with H.I.V. and 21,000 children are infected each year through mother-to-child transmission.

As for low birth weight deaths, India accounts for 8.3 percent of the global figure. The child malnutrition figure in India has been reduced by one percentage point to 46 percent between 1998-99 and 2005-6. As many as 35 percent of the world's undernourished children live in India.

"The idea is to break the monotony of therapeutic food and make people look forward to food that is served hot, wholesome and tastier under the Supplementary Nutrition Program," says Chaya Ratan, a senior official in charge of the program in Andhra Pradesh.

In the Anganwadi centers, or government sponsored childcare and mother care centers, pregnant and lactating mothers from the poorer sections of society are also given these pre-cooked meals to improve their body nutritional content.

The idea of soup kitchens for poor school kids was begun in 1925 by the Corporation of Madras in Tamil Nadu. It became a statewide scheme in 1956 when it was introduced in schools in poor sections.

The idea was picked up by the federal government in 1995 as the national program for Nutrition Support to Primary Education. Initially, the federal government gave only food grains free of cost. State governments were asked to chip in for infrastructure, ingredients, salaries for cooks and so on.

But with states facing a money crunch, the project stalled. It took an order from the Indian Supreme Court in November 2001 to get the scheme rolling again. The apex court made it mandatory for all government-aided schools to provide a cooked midday meal in primary schools.

The normal student intake per day is now 450 calories and 12 grams of protein. The meal scheme has been extended to the upper secondary (class 8-10; age 13-15) sections of all public schools and government-aided schools.

The program has begun to have an effect. In the eastern state of Orissa, one of the poorest states in terms of human resources, the school dropout rate has come down. "In 2004-5, the school dropout rate was estimated at 40 percent. Now it has come down to 20 percent. The retention rate in higher classes in schools has also shown improvement," says Arun Kumar Rath, federal government secretary for school education and literacy.

There are 7.6 million children, in the age group 5-14, who are out of school in India. This is a drop from the 32 million children who were out of school when the universal Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan education program was started in 2001. It has been found that hunger and lack of nutrition among students are major causes for dropouts.

The emphasis of a adding an egg to the meals has also shown improvement in school attendance in Tamil Nadu. The primary school dropout rates have dropped because of the supply of eggs in the noon meal scheme for school students in the area, according to Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Minister Poongothai Aladi Aruna.

"In primary schools, the dropout rate in 2002-3 was 12 percent. This came down to 2 percent in 2006-7. One of the main reasons for this was the introduction of the scheme to give three eggs a week to the students," she said.

In addition to the meal, one boiled egg was supplied to children and students in the 2-15 age group from June 1989.

It has been estimated that two out of three children from poor families in India are being ignored by a program that seeks to provide them supplementary nutrition, a report by a committee appointed by the Indian Supreme Court has said.

The program implementation has been found to be uneven across India mainly due to the reluctance of the state governments to match federal government grants for the Supplementary Nutrition Provision. Instead of sharing the costs evenly between the federal government and state governments, some states kick in only 25 percent. The program in these states suffers from a lack of funding.

India's national family health survey shows there has been some improvement in the nutritional status of children in the past eight years. Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, the percentage of underweight children under the age of three decreased by one percentage point to 46 percent.

Even as the world is applauding India's effort to feed its hungry kids from the poorer strata, a controversy has emerged over a plan to give kids pre-packaged micronutrient fortified food instead of hot cooked meals.

The move by Women and Child Welfare Minister Renuka Chowdhury has been severely condemned by the other senior government officials as a "retrograde" program that will have a "dubious impact."

The Planning Commission, the elite government body that lays down the economic and social roadmap for the country, said that the results of the National Family and Health Survey suggested that earlier experiments with fortified foods had failed to reduce the high levels of malnourishment in the country.

Told of the Planning Commission's reservations, Chowdhury has been quoted as saying, "It is not as if I am obsessed with the idea of pre-packaged food. But at present, it is logistically impossible to provide healthy, cooked meals to children in 110,000 Anganwadis. Where is the infrastructure? Where is the clean water for cooking? Where are the storerooms? What is to be done with leftover cooked food? The challenge is providing an answer to all these questions, to improve infrastructure and then talk about bringing down malnutrition in children."

But experts disagree. The Kolkata Group Workshop, chaired by Nobel Laureate professor Amartya Sen, said, "We were appalled to hear of the proposed displacement of cooked meals by pre-packaged foods and biscuits … any change of course, especially under pressure from commercial interests, would be a serious regressive step against the best interests of children."

In a statement, the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University said, "We are apprehensive that many of the recent debates about introducing packaged foods is driven by business interests and lobbies rather than any serious concern about addressing poverty, hunger and poor health of a majority of children.… This is unacceptable and goes against the fundamental rights of children."

The scheme has had its critics, with reports of corruption due to inadequate monitoring and of poor hygienic cooking standards. But in a country that has malnutrition levels among children that are higher than sub-Saharan Africa, an attempt is being made through the midday meal scheme to see that even the poorest of the poor among the next generation of Indians take their places as equals in the years to come in a healthy and educated environment.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for M.G. Srinath.