Closing loopholes in mid-day meal scheme

Training cook-cum-helpers on retaining nutrition and hygiene of food is significant to scheme's success.

On a bright, sunny day, clad in their best sarees, a group of women assembles in a classroom of a government school in Ranchi, Jharkhand. They have travelled for eight hours from their homes, yet don’t seem fatigued. On the contrary, they are animatedly talking amongst themselves and seem very excited about what is in store for them. For some of them, it is their first trip to Ranchi. They are part of the large community of cooks-cum-helpers whom the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) employs to implement the mid-day meal scheme and they are about to take part in a training programme on personal hygiene and food safety.

By the end of the day, there is feedback. “I was aware of a few hygiene and safety practices, but I learnt a lot more today. For instance, I didn’t know we should remove our glass bangles and finger-rings while cooking,” exclaimed Divya Dev. Her friend Kaushalya Devi said, “All these years we have been working with little know-how of the entire scheme – its objectives, scale and processes. We were unaware of the crucial role we were playing”. 

Divya and Kaushalya are a part of the 24.5 lakh workforce, working under the mid-day meal scheme (MDMS), a flagship programme started in 2001 after a landmark direction by the Supreme Court to enhance children’s nutritional status and foster education. Today, it reaches out to 11 crore children in 12 lakh schools across the country, making it the world’s largest mid-day meal programme. A dedicated budget of Rs 46, 538 crore over the last five years demonstrates the political will towards this scheme and it is indeed noteworthy. Yet, despite its mammoth scale and continuous growth over the last 12 years, it is still riddled with implementation issues. 

Extensive training

The need and importance of exhaustive trainings for cook-cum-helpers on safe and hygienic techniques of preparing food has taken a priority now, post the recent Bihar tragedy. The misfortune witnessed the unfortunate deaths of 23 children in Chhapra, Saran district after consuming school meals cooked using oil stored in a pesticide container. In the wake of this incident, the MHRD and the state governments have begun intensive trainings for cook-cum-helpers across the country through various associations. The tourism ministry is utilising its designated Institutes of Hotel Management (IHMs) and the Food Craft Institutes (FCIs) to upgrade the skills of the cook-cum-helpers in a phased manner. Through its 10 day training module, they aim to teach the cook-cum-helpers methods of retaining nutrition while cooking and also impart awareness on malnutrition and required nutrition in food.

Non-profit players such as The Akshaya Patra Foundation are also conducting trainings on food quality, safety and hygiene workshops for cook-cum-helpers, coordinators, district education officers (DEOs),block resource persons (BRPs) and district resource persons (DRPs) in an attempt to enhance capacity building at all levels of the scheme. Apart from these, the training also has a strong focus on fire safety and medical emergencies to avoid mishaps at the school level. Mumbai-based Naik Foundation is running an intensive programme with an aim to strengthen the cooking quality of cook-cum-helpers. Participants of these trainings are provided with a complete gear (gloves, aprons, napkins etc) which helps in boosting their self-esteem. 

These trainings will not only build the cook-cum-helpers knowledge but also build on their skill sets which work well while cooking for a family of 5-8 but require extensive training and supervision while cooking for 100-200 children as the process becomes vastly different. In order to have the learnings of these trainings reflect successfully on ground, it is imperative to utilise the cook-cum-helpers existing traditional wisdom and concepts and build intensive learnings on these. Such knowledge is evident in each one of them as during one of the trainings focusing on food hygiene, a woman confidently exclaimed in Hindi, “Rice washed once before cooking makes food for ghosts, washed twice makes food for demons and only when it is washed thrice is it fit for human beings.”

This basket of trainings imparted by different players, right from the government to non-profit players, will ensure that India’s cook-cum-helpers get a holistic understanding of the importance of high-quality food for children. And while training 24.5 lakh cooks is a herculean task which will take a long time, it is laudable that the government has taken an initiative in the right direction. There is also an indication that dedicated budgets would be assigned for the purpose of trainings and with that in place, a long pending loop would be finally closed.

(The writer is with the Akshaya Patra Foundation)

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