HEALTH/ GOVERNANCE/ SOCIETY
Topic: General Studies 2, 3:
- Issues relating to poverty and hunger.
- Mechanisms, laws, institutions and Bodies constituted for the protection and betterment of these vulnerable sections
School Closures and Nutrition Fallout
Context: As many as 116 million children were impacted due to the indefinite school closure in India in the wake of COVID-19 induced lockdown which disrupted the largest school-feeding programme in the world –Mid Day Meal Scheme.
Do You Know?
- Almost 194.4 million people in India are undernourished, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 report by the FAO.
- A real-time monitoring tool estimated that as of April 2020, the peak of school closures, 369 million children globally were losing out on school meals, a bulk of whom were in India.
- Tough to meet the ‘Zero Hunger’ goal by 2030: The recent Global Hunger Index (GHI) report for 2020 ranks India at 94 out of 107 countries and in the category ‘serious’, behind our neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
- Danger of falling enrolment rate: A report by the International Labour Organization and the UNICEF, on COVID-19 and child labour, cautions that unless school services and social security are universally strengthened, there is a risk that some children may not even return to schools when they reopen.
About Mid-Day Meal Scheme
- The scheme aims to improve nutritional levels among school children which also has a direct and positive impact on enrolment, retention and attendance in schools.
- A mid-day meal in India should provide 450 Kcal of energy, a minimum of 12 grams of proteins, including adequate quantities of micronutrients like iron, folic acid, Vitamin-A, etc. according to the mid-day meal scheme (MDMS) guidelines, 2006.
- This is approximately one-third of the nutritional requirement of the child, with all school-going children from classes I to VIII in government and government-aided schools being eligible.
- However, many research reports, and even the Joint Review Mission of MDMS, 2015-16 noted that many children reach school on an empty stomach, making the school’s mid-day meal a major source of nutrition for children, particularly those from vulnerable communities.
What happened to MDMS during COVID-19 Pandemic?
- In orders in March and April 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and closure of schools, the Government of India announced that the usual hot-cooked mid-day meal or an equivalent food security allowance/dry ration would be provided to all eligible school-going children even during vacation.
- This was done to ensure that their immunity and nutrition is not compromised.
- Nearly three months into this decision, States were still struggling to implement this.
- According to the Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) food grain bulletin, the offtake of grains under MDMS from FCI during April and May, 2020 was 221.312 thousand tonnes, 22%, lower than the corresponding offtake during April and May, 2019 (281.932 thousand tonnes).
- There were 23 States and Union Territories that reported a decline in the grain offtake from FCI in April-May 2020, compared with corresponding months in 2019.
- The State of Bihar, for instance, which lifted 44.585 thousand tonnes in April and May 2019, had no offtake during these two months in 2020.
- Data and media reports indicate that dry ration distributions in lieu of school meals are irregular .
- The other worrying angle to the lack of school meals and functioning schools is the fact that there are reports of children engaging in labour to supplement the fall in family incomes in vulnerable households.
Innovative strategies to ensure functioning of MDMS during the pandemic period
- Local Smallholder Farmer’s involvement
- The COVID-19 crisis has also brought home the need for such decentralised models and local supply chains.
- Local smallholder farmers’ involvement in school feeding can be at the helm of such nutrition initiatives.
- A livelihood model could be established that links local smallholder farmers with the mid-day meal system for the supply of cereals, vegetables, and eggs.
- This not only help in meeting protein and hidden hunger needs of children but could also diversify production and farming systems, transform rural livelihoods and the local economy, and fulfill the ‘Atmanirbhar Poshan’ (nutritional self-sufficiency) agenda.
- School Nutrition (Kitchen) Garden
- School Nutrition (Kitchen) Garden under MDMS can be another initiative to provide fresh vegetables for mid-day meals.
- Besides ensuring these are functional, what can be done, in addition, is provide hot meals can be provided to eligible children with a plan to prepare and distribute the meal in the school mid-day meal centre.
- This is similar to free urban canteens or community kitchens for the elderly and others in distress in States like Odisha.
- Also, adequate awareness about of the availability of the scheme is needed.
With continuing uncertainty regarding the reopening of schools, innovation is required to ensure that not just food, but nutrition is delivered regularly to millions of children. For many of them, that one hot-cooked meal was probably the best meal of the day.