In today’s Finshots we explain the problems with the world’s largest school meals scheme and how the Indian government is trying to turn things around
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In the first 9 months of 2022, 979 students in India were affected by food poisoning. Since 2009, a staggering 10,000 cases of foodborne illness have been reported in schools in India.
And the perpetrator? lunch menus.
If you’re wondering what’s happening here, let’s take it from above.
In 1995, the Indian government attempted to address two major problems – child malnutrition and low school enrollment rates. And to kill two birds with one stone, the government introduced the lunch menu. The goal was simple: to provide hot and nutritious meals to children in government schools across the country, covering everyone in grades 1-8.
The government hoped that the mere appeal of the food would make children rush to school. There was also hope that well-fed children would do better on the academic front and perhaps even lift themselves out of poverty.
And somehow it worked. While enrollment numbers have declined over the past decade, this has had a positive impact on children’s academic performance. On average, children who received lunch did 18% better in reading and 9% better in math.
And today, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme is the world’s largest school feeding program. It feeds nearly 12 million children in 11 lakh schools with an annual budget of over £10,000 million!
But like most well-meaning programs, the lunchtime meal program is not without its problems.
In this case it is simply the quality of the food.
In 2013, 23 children from Bihar died after eating lunch meals extended under this program. In another case, they found a dead lizard in meals served at a school in Uttar Pradesh. 30 students were taken to the nearest government hospital. Rotten eggs with worms were distributed at a school in Tamil Nadu. And just a few months ago, when Kerala’s Minister of Food and Civil Services made a surprise visit to inspect lunch at a school, he was served a meal with strands of hair.
The list goes on and on.
So why is this happening despite a budget of ₹10,000 crore you ask?
The simple answer is implementation.
You see, this is how the lunch menu works. There is no central kitchen to prepare these meals. In fact, the responsibility lies with the school authorities to obtain all the raw materials and cook the food. So you need to procure grains, vegetables, legumes, cooking oil and hire cooks and helpers to prepare the meals.
And there it goes south.
Around 65% of the nearly 25 lakh cook helpers earn less than ₹2,000 per month. In fact, they only get £1,000 in 8 states. And it hasn’t been revised since 2009.
Why are they receiving such a paltry sum, you ask? Well, they are categorized as volunteers who volunteer to help people – provide community service. From a legal point of view, they are therefore not entitled to the minimum wage.
And you can see why these people may not be fully invested in their work. That should not excuse their dereliction of duty. But incentives produce results.
Now the government is doing something to address some of the problems with lunchtime meals.
For example, in 2019 it decided to introduce an official food quality monitoring system. 2-3 members of the school management committee and at least one teacher must now taste the food before it is served to the children. It even urged schools to source only Agmark-certified products (the mark of trust for agricultural products) and branded goods when preparing lunchtime meals.
Now the government wants to go one step further. It involves the Indian Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI). Finally, about a week ago, it was announced that anyone participating in the lunchtime meal program would be required to obtain an FSSAI license. And the cooks and helpers are trained through the food safety training and certification program — all funded by the state governments.
Maybe they will soon look at the incentive topic with cooks and helpers. Perhaps they recognize the need to compensate them appropriately so that they feel invested in this program.
And hopefully those damn food poisoning cases see a sharp drop soon enough.
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