Feeding Young Minds

NEW DELHI – Of the many sad news stories emerging recently from India, the saddest in a long time concerns the deaths of 23 schoolchildren in July in Chhapra, the main town in the impoverished rural Saran district of the state of Bihar. The children were poisoned by their midday meals – a vital part of a government-run nutrition program in schools – which apparently were cooked in oil that had been carelessly stored in used pesticide containers. The sheer horror – parents seeing their kids safely off to school, only to have them be killed there by something intended to benefit them – is unbearable.

The reaction has been predictable breast-beating about the inefficiency of India’s government services (particularly in rural areas), the country’s woeful standards of hygiene, and inattentive implementation of even flagship national schemes by the country’s 28 state governments. The midday meal scheme itself has been trashed in India and abroad as wasteful and counter-productive. “Free school meals kill Indian children,” one headline screamed. Another commentator even went so far as to claim that there is “little evidence to suggest that schoolchildren are actually getting any nutritional value from it at all.”

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Critics of the scheme view it as symptomatic of big government run amok and ask why it is necessary for any government to feed schoolchildren. The answer, in India, is that no one else could. While various small school-lunch programs existed, the idea of a massive government-backed scheme originated three decades ago in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

When Tamil Nadu’s chief minister at the time, the film star M.G. Ramachandran, introduced free school meals statewide, the measure was widely criticized as populist and fiscally irresponsible. Children, his detractors argued, go to school to learn, not to eat. But if children do not get enough to eat, they cannot learn: empty stomachs make it difficult to fill minds.

Tamil Nadu’s voters, who supported the scheme at election time, silenced the critics. So did the scheme’s results – improved literacy rates and nutrition levels. Soon, other states were imitating the program, and in 1995, India’s central government followed suit, supplementing state governments’ budgets so that children throughout the country could enjoy the same benefit. Today, 87% of government schools implement the scheme.

The midday meal scheme – which costs India’s government about $2 billion a year, with additional funding coming from state governments – feeds 120 million schoolchildren in more than a million primary schools across the country. By providing free and balanced nutrition to schoolchildren, it has provided a powerful incentive to poor families to send their kids to school and, equally important, to keep them there throughout the day.

Indeed, thanks to the scheme, school-attendance rates have improved, sometimes by as much as 10%, and dropout rates have declined. And obliging children of different castes to eat the same meal at the same time in the same place has broken down social barriers in a highly stratified society.

Children whose families could not afford to feed them properly have benefited significantly. In drought-affected areas, the midday meal scheme has allowed children who otherwise would have starved to overcome malnourishment. Allegations that the scheme lacks nutritional value have been disproved. One scholar, Farzana Afridi, reported in the Journal of Development Economics that the program “improved nutritional intakes by reducing the daily protein deficiency of a primary school student by 100%, the calorie deficiency by almost 30%, and the daily iron deficiency by nearly 10%.”

But, while the midday meal scheme’s benefits have ensured its popularity, the quality of its implementation has varied across states. The national government provides funds for cooks and helpers, and has devised guidelines for the program’s implementation, but schools are under the jurisdiction of state governments, some of which are more capable than others of maintaining the standards required to provide a reliable service. Many northern states, such as Bihar, have lagged in providing kitchens, storage facilities, and utensils. The rule requiring at least two adults to taste meals before they are served to children has often been ignored, as it was in the Chhapra tragedy.

Attempts to enforce the rule have met unexpected resistance from teachers, who are obliged to rotate tasting duty: they object that they are at school to teach students, not to taste food. Some teachers’ unions have refused to perform the task.

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Sadder still has been the reaction of some parents in Bihar, who have withdrawn their children from school rather than risk their being poisoned. Such concerns are understandable but manifestly exaggerated. The Chhapra tragedy has at least focused attention on a scheme that public opinion has largely taken for granted. But it would be a great pity if, in examining what went wrong, deficiencies in the program’s implementation were to obscure its accomplishments.

The midday meal scheme has transformed lives and helped educate a generation of poor schoolchildren. It should be emulated by other developing countries, not shunned because of a preventable disaster. Indeed, the Chhapra tragedy would be compounded were it to end up derailing a program that is benefiting millions of children and their families every day.