Feeding Young Minds

India's midday meal scheme has transformed lives and helped educate a generation of poor schoolchildren. The tragedy in July in Chhapra, in which 23 children died after eating a poisoned lunch, would be compounded were it to end up derailing a program that is benefiting millions of children and their families every day.

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.”

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.