The original purpose of school feeding programs in the country was to expand literacy by attracting children to the school with the bait of food. Universal literacy calls for compulsory enrollment of children in primary schools where the fundamentals of speaking, reading, writing and arithmetic are imbibed by the child. There are divergent views regarding this approach and many reviews have thrown up disturbing questions regarding the efficacy of the programs since the rate of absenteeism has not come drown drastically. Difference also exists regarding what type of foods should be served in the schools during the lunch time. Rightly or wrongly, authorities concerned seem to have come to the conclusion that serving 'hot' foods, prepared within the premises, is the best option since they felt, genuinely or otherwise, that students are 'happier' with fresh foods than processed food products.
Credit goes to Tamil Nadu where during MGR regime, hot meal scheme was introduced to attract children to the schools but way back in 1930 Pondicherry under French rule started the practice of feeding children attending the school as a welfare scheme. Other states followed this novel approach with GOI financial assistance with varying success. Under the CARE program sponsored by the US, corn-soy-milk powder was made available to various states to be converted into readily consumable products in the schools. The reputation of the school feeding program took a beating with gross inefficiency, shoddy distribution, large pilferage and other systemic failures. It took many years for the program to breathe life again, that too after the intervention of Supreme Court which ordered the implementation of midday meal scheme for children in the age bracket 5-10 years and GOI provided a budgetary support to the extent of Rs 3800 crore in 2006-07, Rs 5000 crore in 2007-08 and Rs 7300 crore in 2008-09. The scheme is supposed to cover 105 million children though actually only 58.1 million are covered now.
Does it really serve the purpose for which it is being promoted? Or is it just another populist scheme under the garb of social equity? Does it make any sense that a child who comes to the school for the food will show any interest in learning? Views differ. There are statistics, being doled out, to to justify the scheme and according to them the school attendance improvement was 15% to 35%, though it is not clear how reliable these figures are. Why should a program like this cover the entire school? Why not only for those children coming from economically weaker families? Is the PDS history being repeated? There was a time when even very well to do people were having ration cards and drawing wheat, rice and sugar at subsidized rates. It took more than 3 decades for the authorities to modify the PDS to make it relevant to millions of poor families. If such a distinction can be made for PDS why not same be done in midday school feeding program also?
The Energy Food program initiated in eighties in Karnataka and other states, which offered a shelf-stable, highly balanced and nutritious food with 16% proteins and 350 kC energy, was unceremoniously dumped in favor of 'hot' meals scheme, promoted by many vested interests in the country. There is a nexus amongst private suppliers, government bureaucrats, education department officials and the teaching staff to perpetuate this myth that children like only hot meals, ignoring the consequences of opting for such a large logistical nightmare in putting into practice the concept country-wide. The intrinsic dangers like inadequate infrastructure, primitive conditions that exist in almost all schools, lack of commitment on the part of the teachers, lax overseeing, enormous variations in quality, safety, and nutritional value etc are conveniently ignored with frequent food poisoning cases reported from these schools. Why it is not possible to evolve a dozen variations of processed foods suitable for consumption by the school children and provide varieties by rotation every day? It is time for the Supreme Court to intervene again to direct the government to ban cooking of foods in school premises and run the scheme only on processed foods. The charade that goes on in the name of the children and extensive pilferage and corruption which is an inevitable part of the present program must be stopped immediately.
If the schools and the education departments are dead against processed foods, why not dole out money directly to the children's families if the attendance is more than 70% in a month? Government must understand that in a country like India micro management of every family is neither desirable nor feasible. It will be some thing like the old age pension scheme and this can be called "Child Development Assistance". Let us not vitiate the learning atmosphere in a school room with food cooking, littering and spread of diseases!