Here is an interesting piece of news coming from Delhi which is both intriguing and paradoxical. Intriguing because the Parliamentary Committee has not made any suggestion as to how hot food can be supplied in packed condition and paradoxical because packed foods supplied till a few years ago were discontinued on a clamor for fresh foods.
"Taking note of the increasing complaints about the food served under mid-day meal scheme in schools,a Parliamentary panel has suggested distribution of packaged food to children. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on HRD has asked the Ministry to "explore the feasibility of providing packaged nutrition food in conformity with norms and standards of the scheme". This may be done initially on a pilot basis in some selected districts to ascertain its viability, it suggested. The food cooked in schools for children has come under the scanner especially on hygiene and quality. Reports indicate that even in Delhi, quality of food being served in schools was found to be wanting in norms and standards prescribed under the programme. If the situation is such in the capital, what would be the position in interior could well be imagined," the committee, headed by Rajya Sabha member Oscar Fernandes, said. The panel also drew the attention of the working group which had suggested roping in the Food and Nutrition Board to provide training to teachers and cook-cum-helpers and for regular monitoring of food safety among others. One of the particular concerns of the committee was that hundreds of schools were lagging behind in meeting the infrastructure requirements, including construction of kitchen cum-stores, under the Right to Education (RTE) Act. The deadline for meeting these requirements had ended on March 31. According to ministry reports, of 9.55 lakh kitchen-cum- stores sanctioned between 2006-07 and 2012-13, only 5.99 lakh or 63 per cent of them have been constructed".
Some of the comments made by the Committee are relevant and must be followed up. But the suggestion to explore supply of packed foods is fraught with many complications. It was during nineteen seventies that the state of Karnataka implemented a project to manufacture ready to eat nutritious food called energy food with 360 calories of energy, 16 gm of protein and a host of essential vitamins and minerals in a 100 gm portion to be provided to every school coming child in all its schools. This product was developed by the internationally acclaimed Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore and five factories were set up to make about 25000 tons during a school year sufficient to feed 1.25 million children a day. As this product had no commercial value pilferage was hardly a problem with the entire production reaching the targeted beneficiaries. Precisely for this reason there were motivated criticism against energy food and the state government bowing to the pressure of the vested interests closed all the 5 factories with absolutely no justification at all. Two decades after this sorry episode, the Government of India is trying to revive the concept of packed foods having realized the folly of cooking foods in the premises of the school fraught with umpteen number of problems.
Midday school feeding program is, no doubt, a sound concept the major objective being enhancement of school admissions and improvement of attendance. It is sad story that in spite of massive funding, by the government, about 8.5 million kids still do not go to any school and school attendance on an average does not go beyond 50%. What a colossal waste of human resources! Though the literacy rate in the country is about 70% there are states like Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Jharkand where about 40% of the population remains illiterate! There are reported to be about 0.8 million schools in the country under the government control most of which are ill equipped to impart any quality education. Government and its experts feel that food will attract more children to the schools but even if food does attract them what type of citizens will emerge from such schools without teachers, class rooms, toilet facilities, provision for potable water etc so essential for imparting education?
Under the above pitiable condition, is it not madness to introduce cooked foods for serving in hot condition to each and every child? Do all the children need food at the school as many of them coming from well to do families do not consume the school cooked foods? Where do these schools go for accessing to clean water as most rural areas do not enjoy protected water supply? Is it not true that the hot food supply scheme is vulnerable to food poisoning and other diseases because of foods made by people ignorant about hygiene and sanitation? Who ensures that food is cooked without exposure to the elements as most schools do not have decently equipped kitchens? what about the wastage due to some children absenting and others not coming to the school? How do these schools insulate themselves from food inflation as many vegetables, edible oil, pulses and other inputs are priced high in the market depending on the season of the year and demand supply pull of a dynamic market? Fruits can never be supplied because the cheapest fruit papaya itself costs upward of Rs 20 per kilo!
Of course the above questions are tough to answer and government just gloated over these issues before jumping into the hot food wagon landing into innumerable logistical and safety problems. Ideally all consumers, whether young or old like hot foods but this desire needs to be compromised depending on the situation. In the case of schools the environment and the conditions obtaining in most of them are not congenial for cooking any food in a satisfactory way requiring many compromises including adverse effect on the kids who eat these foods. How foolish it is for the Government to invest millions of rupees on building kitchen facilities while the more critical teaching infrastructure is in shambles! What is the purpose of setting up a school? Can the focus of the teachers be diverted in managing a cafeteria which after all requires lot of time and skill which are lacking as far as these hard pressed teachers are concerned. How are the teachers going to be assessed for their performance, the academic performance of their wards or the quality and quantity of foods made to feed the children? Parliamentary Committee is right in asking for a shift from freshly cooked foods to packaged foods and GoI should not lose any more time in heeding to this well considered suggestion.
It may not be proper to ridicule all those NGOs who might be doing a good job as far as providing hot food to many children in thousands of schools across the country. For example ISKON organization with its avowed objective of serving humanity has contributed immensely in this area after accepting responsibility in some states. Its high tech cooking facility and distribution management can be the envy of any established caterers in the country.According to its claim it is serving about half a million kids through its Akshaya program and is planning to expand its coverage to 2 millions a day by 2020. There are a few other organizations also active in the field but even in the best managed system, feeding fresh foods is a logistical nightmare vulnerable to mishaps any time. One of the justifications for freshly cooked food being offered is that the food preference among children varies enormously and one type of product served in schools in one area might not be liked in other areas and therefore local cooking has the flexibility of varying the menu tailoring to the local taste preferences.