At two o’clock in the afternoon, the courtyard outside the Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya government school in the Indian capital is packed with 1,100 students, all lined up for the day’s free, hot lunch.
Twelve-year old Rahul Bharti crouches among his friends, dipping the puri, or flat bread, into the chickpea curry. He knows full well the importance of this meal. “If the food is not distributed, all the kids will go hungry,” the eighth-grader said.
His statement is not an exaggeration. India’s mid-day meal program is seen as instrumental in providing food to youngsters who may otherwise go without in a country already battling high rates of malnutrition. In India, nearly half of all children under five years old are underweight. The scheme is also credited with increasing school enrollment.
While some states have had such programs in place for years, the Indian Supreme Court in 2001 directed all government-run schools to provide cooked meals to primary school children. Nationwide, the program feeds at least 110 million kids in 1.2 million government schools.
Feeding millions in need
But serving up lunch on such a huge scale is not without its challenges - which were brought to light in July of this year when 23 primary school children died in the impoverished northern state of Bihar after eating their mid-day meal.
The principal was allegedly alerted to a foul smell coming from the food but insisted it be served anyway. The students fell ill almost immediately. Many died on the way to the hospital. Lab results found traces of highly toxic insecticide in the cooking oil, which had been stored in the principal’s home, along with the other provisions. The principal fled the school during the incident and was arrested days later. Police in Bihar have charged her with murder.
The tragedy has prompted the government to take a second look at the country’s mid-day meal program. Human Resource Development Additional Secretary Amarjit Singh heads the nationwide mission.
“It was a very sad accident. It should not have happened. There should be zero tolerance for such accidents,” he told VOA.
Singh says there were three major failures in the Bihar case: the school did not have a separate kitchen and storage area that was free from potential contamination, the principal failed to taste the meal despite being alerted by the cook, and the school did not have an emergency plan. Parents struggled to find ambulances to transport their sick children to the hospital.
He also says the central government is working with states to address the shortcomings, and has already stepped up training for master cooks in states including Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Assam.
“A cascade model of training down the line on what are the nutritional components, how do you ensure safety, how do you ensure the food is tasted by a senior member before it is being fed to the kids, so those aspects - what is to be done - having an emergency plan if this happens. Those kind of training programs are going on,” Singh said.
Enforcing safety locally
Purnima Menon, a senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, says that while India’s mid-day meal program can be considered successful, it’s only as good as its governance and implementation. She says the incident in Bihar was a tragedy of not having checks and balances, despite prior research noting major shortcomings.
A 2010 Planning Commission study
found gaping holes, particularly in Bihar’s program, including an erratic food supply, a lack of utensils and poor food quality.
“What is clearly needed is… a very clear articulation of what is the quality standard for every single school meal kitchen, whether it be the serving process or the preparation process,” said Menon.
She notes that having universal quality standards allows schools to work their way back up into the system to identify areas needing attention.
“Is it better infrastructure we need, more training? One can determine what is required so you don’t end up in ‘band-aid’ situations,” said Menon.
Despite quality standards varying from state to state and school to school, many kids like 12-year old Sahil Khan say they have no choice. They can’t learn on an empty stomach.
“If you don’t eat properly, how can you concentrate?” asked Khan as he finished his lunch and prepared to head to class in the Tughlakabad area of New Delhi.
With increased scrutiny of the mid-day meal program, families hope their children will not risk their health each time they line up for lunch.