'Study nutritional status of children to modify meals scheme'

'Study nutritional status of children to modify meals scheme'

'Study nutritional status of children to modify meals scheme'

The findings of a study conducted in Andhra Pradesh by Young Lives, University of Oxford, establish that, “school meals at age five compensated entirely for malnourishment from droughts in early childhood.”

The period between the two rounds of survey (2002 and 2006-07) witnessed a severe drought in the study areas, resulting in an agrarian distress and an obvious nutritional shock for the children.

Yet, according to the study there was no difference in the nutritional status of children whose households were affected by the drought vis-à-vis those that weren’t. The mid-day meals received in the schools had a positive effect on the weight and height of the affected children. 

The study which shows that ‘catch-up growth’ is indeed possible, throws significant light on the Centre’s Rs 13,125 crore (for the current year) mid-day meal scheme’s (MDMS) potential in improving the nutritional deprivation faced by our country’s 42 per cent malnourished children as well as those in the age bracket of 5-14 years. 

Although pioneered by the government of Tamil Nadu in 1956, it was only after a landmark direction by the Supreme Court in 2001, that the mid-day meal scheme began nationwide implementation of cooked meals in all government and government-aided schools.

Under the scheme, all primary and upper primary children of India’s government schools shall be entitled to a cooked meal of no less that 450 kilocalories and 12 grams of protein.

With a coverage of 12 crore children in 12.65 lakh schools, India’s MDMS is the largest school meal programme in the world today (State of School Feeding Worldwide 2013). Just in the year 2010-11, MDMS expanded its services by an impressive 10 per cent. 

The scheme has demonstrated substantial success regarding attendance and retention as well as enrolment, of especially girls. Research shows that it has also significantly fostered gender and social equality. Despite its immense potential and impact, the scheme remains somewhat neglected. There are critical factors that continue to ail the MDMS. With the new NDA government’s increasing focus on treating “extreme poverty and malnutrition” as national priority, it is timely to understand and address these challenges. 

Firstly, there is no nation-wide assessment on the nutritional status of children aged 5-14. While sporadic research has been conducted and continues to happen, they by no means should serve as an indicator for the entire nation. There is an immediate need to conduct timely state-wide surveys and understand the exact and varying nutritional status of children.
 The results should form the base for nutritionists, policy makers and governments to re-design the existing menu(s) by diversifying the nutritional basket and incorporating local varieties of pulses and vegetables. Furthermore, nutritionists should also design local, low-cost nutritious recipes for families and urge government workers to conduct monthly sessions in the schools to bring awareness and administer incorporation of a healthy  

Secondly, for the mid-day meal to be beneficial, extra factors such as de-worming and micronutrient supplies (Iron, Folic Acid and Zinc) are essential. For this, MDMS relies on the ministry of health and family welfare’s school health programme.  Expansion of coverage

However, in 2010-11, mere 30 per cent children of 4.93 lakh schools were covered. And in 2012-13, there was a marginal increase with 36 per cent children undergoing health check-ups, 22 per cent received IFA (Iron, Folic Acid) and 19 per cent received de-worming tablets.

With alarming rates of malnutrition and anemia (affects more than 90 per cent adolescent girls), the government needs to rapidly increase its coverage and ensure regularity. Any inconsistency will not only affect the child’s path to nutritional recovery but can leave them malnourished for a lifetime, ultimately causing a blow to the economy. 

Thirdly, financial irregularities and misuse of funds can hamper the scheme altogether. According to Accountability Initiative, in 2011-12, states such as Jharkhand served only 72 per cent of the planned meals and West Bengal served 81 per cent.
 Financial irregularities on the other hand result in procuring cheap/ limited raw materials, impacting the food quality and the children’s health. A robust monitoring system needs to be in place ensuring all states not only meet their meal targets but also maintain quality.

Finally, cook-cum-helpers (CCH) need significant attention in two aspects; wages and training. At present, 25.48 lakh CCHs are employed in the MDMS. However, reports indicate delays in salaries/ honorariums for as many as 6-8 months. This hinders the smooth functioning automatically. Another focus area is the training of CCHs.
Last year’s Bihar mid-day meal tragedy points out at the dire need for exhaustive trainings on safe and hygienic techniques of food preparation. While the MDM department has already begun these trainings with the help of non-profit players, one time trainings may not suffice. 

There is a need to set aside dedicated budgets, intensify and regularize the same. The mid-day meal scheme is undoubtedly one of India’s powerful social imaginations. It has worked in many areas and continues to do so, but with a little extra effort, it has the ability to deliver tangible results on India’s school-going population. Or in other words, its economic future. 

(The writer is with the Akshaya Patra Foundation)

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