Why government must keep investing in Mid Day Meal Scheme

To successfully improve nutrition, it is essential to have convergence across sectors including food, health, safe drinking water and sanitation.

 |  4-minute read |   02-03-2015
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The government of India launched its national school feeding programme - the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDM) - in 1995. It is aimed at improving the nutrition of children in classes 1 to 8 in government and government aided schools. It is also designed to boost school attendance and children's participation in school. With a budget of over Rs 13,000 crores, providing hot cooked meals to over 10 crore children in almost 12 lakh schools across the country, needless to say, it is an extensive programme. However, is the investment in MDM being used judiciously to achieve the end objective?

MDM aims to provide 450 calories and 12 grams of proteins to primary school children and 700 calories and 20 grams of proteins to upper primary school children in addition to adequate quantities of micronutrients such as iron and folic acid.

Micronutrient deficiencies such as iron and vitamin A have an overwhelming impact in India. Amongst 7 to 12 year old children in India over 86 per cent have been found to be consuming below the recommended level of Vitamin A and over 46 per cent consuming insufficient iron. Micronutrient deficiencies can impair children's cognitive development, cause lack of concentration, school absenteeism and even illness.

A programme at this scale has some challenges but simple and innovative solutions have already been tried and proven. Among key areas which need to be strengthened for the MDM to achieve its desired objectives, are enhancing the nutritional value of the food and controlling disease among children.

Addressing micronutrient deficiencies through the MDM is an essential investment not only in improving nutrition but also for welfare, human rights and economic development. A rigorous study in Guatemala found that boys under the age of three, who received a fortified complementary food, earned 46 per cent more than others who did not, when they grew up. Addressing hunger in school also makes for a more conducive learning environment.

World Food Programme (WFP) has been working to support the government of India in finding solutions to strengthen the country's food-based safety nets in order to address existing levels of malnutrition and food insecurity. Fortification is a good example of how we are working together.

#1. Fortification is a tried and tested process through which micronutrients are added to food items. Fortification of staples such as rice and wheat with iron and Vitamin A have been successfully piloted in India with encouraging results. Cooked meals can also be fortified with micronutrient pre-mixes. At a reasonable cost, fortification can result in rapid improvement in the micronutrient status of a group. WFP,in partnership with the government of Odisha, piloted iron fortification of MDM rice in one district. Within one year of the pilot the prevalence of anaemia fell by 5 per cent. Another fortification pilot by WFP and government of Uttarakhand, in the Tehri Garhwal District, resulted in a reduction of iron deficiency anaemia among the children by over 8 per cent in eight months.

#2. Integrating safe and hygienic practices in the MDM is essential to ensure any progress is not watered down with the onset of diseases. This needs to be established throughout the food supply chain, during preparation and consumption. Cooking and storage facilities need to be hygienic, there needs to be a continuous supply of water for hand washing and cleaning products, appropriate kit with aprons, gloves and caps for the cooks and safe food waste disposal. The importance of adequate toilets has already been flagged by the government's ongoing push to build a toilet in every school.

#3. Improving school management: Further, change and support from school management, cooking staff and the children themselves, is vital for the scheme to have the intended effect. It is essential that the cooking staff have regular health checks and adopt hygienic standards such as washing their hands as well as those of the children before and after eating meals. Three important messages that need to be reiterated to all stakeholders are clean hands, clean utensils, clean cooking and serving area.

To successfully improve nutrition, it is essential to have strategies and convergence across sectors including food, health, safe drinking water and sanitation. With one in three of world's malnourished children living in this country, this investment is imperative for India. MDM is well placed to support the nutritional requirements of a large number of India's children but some stark gaps regarding hygiene and the nutritional value of every meal needs to be addressed to enhance the impact of this investment.

Writer

Torben Due Torben Due

India Country director, World Food Programme.

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