In today’s Finshots, we explain the problems with the world’s largest school meal programme and how the Indian government is trying to turn things around

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The Story

In the first 9 months of 2022, food poisoning affected 979 school students in India. Since 2009, a staggering 10,000 food poisoning cases have been reported across schools in India.

And the culprit? Mid-day meal schemes.

If you’re wondering what’s happening here, let’s take it from the top.

In 1995, the Indian government tried tackling two major issues — malnutrition among kids and low school enrollments. And to kill two birds with one stone, the government introduced the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. The goal was simple — provide warm and nutritious meals to kids in government schools across the country and cover everyone in classes 1–8.

The government hoped that the allure of food alone would have kids scurrying to school. There was also the hope that well-fed kids would go on to do better on the academic front and perhaps even pull themselves out of poverty.

And it kind of worked. While the enrolment figures have declined in the past decade, it has positively affected the kids’ academic scores. On average, children who received mid-day meals scored 18% higher in reading and 9% more in maths.

And today, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme is the world’s largest school meal programme. It provides food to nearly 12 crore children in 11 lakh schools with an annual budget of over ₹10,000 crores!

But, as with most well-meaning schemes, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme is not without its fair share of problems.

In this case, it is simply the quality of the food.

Back in 2013, 23 kids from Bihar died after consuming mid-day meals extended under this scheme. In another instance, they found a dead lizard in meals served in a school in Uttar Pradesh. 30 students were rushed to the nearest government hospital. Rotten eggs with worms were distributed in a school in Tamil Nadu. And just a few months ago, when the Kerala Food and Civil Supplies Minister made a surprise visit to inspect the lunch at a school, he was served a meal with hair strands.

The list goes on and on.

So, why does this happen despite a ₹10,000 crore budget, you ask?

The simple answer is implementation.

See, this is how the Mid-Day Meal Scheme works. There isn’t a central kitchen to prepare these meals. In fact, the onus is on the school authorities to procure all the raw materials and cook the food. So they have to source foodgrains, vegetables, pulses, and cooking oil and hire cooks and helpers who prepare the meals.

And that’s where things head south.

Around 65% of the nearly 25 lakh cook-cum helpers are paid less than ₹2,000 per month. In fact, in 8 states, they only get paid ₹1,000. And it hasn’t been revised since 2009.

Why do they receive such a paltry sum you ask? Well, they’re classified as honorary workers who have volunteered to work for the benefit of the people — render social services. So in the eyes of the law, they aren’t eligible for the minimum wage.

And you can see why these people may not be fully invested in going about their jobs. That’s not to excuse their dereliction of duty. But incentives do drive outcomes.

Now the government is doing something to address some of the issues with mid-day meal schemes.

For instance, in 2019, it decided to adopt an official system to monitor food quality. 2–3 members of the School Management Committee and at least one teacher must now taste the food before serving it to children. It even asked schools to procure only Agmark certified products (the trusted mark for agricultural products) and branded items while preparing midday meals.

And now the government wants to take things one step further. It is getting the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) involved. About a week ago, it finally announced that everyone who’s part of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme needs to get an FSSAI licence. And the cook-cum-helpers will be trained under the Food Safety Training & Certification scheme — all funded by state governments.

Maybe soon they’ll also look at the incentive issue with cooks and helpers. Maybe they’ll recognise the need to compensate them duly so that they feel invested in this programme.

And hopefully, those damned cases of food poisoning see a sharp decline soon enough.

Until then…

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