Collapse of mid-day meals

Kashmir Times. Dated: 7/9/2020 1:18:41 PM

Complete breakdown of mid-day meal scheme in the prevailing pandemic can adversely hit food security of the most vulnerable

Early this week, some reports in newspapers pointed out how the crisis caused by the lockdown in the wake of Coronavirus has adversely impacted the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in some parts of Bihar and other states of the country. In fact, it is unfortunate that the country's main weapon in India's fight against malnutrition has been blunted by the Covid-19 crisis. The reports focus on the plight of the children of marginalized sections of the society, who have been dependent on Mid-Day Meals for feeding their children, particularly the most deprived Dalit communities in Bihar. The situation in most other states is no different after the lockdown announced on March 24, 2020, resulted in complete breakdown of the Mid-Day Meal scheme across the country barring few exceptions of some states, which formulated alternate arrangements. The scheme at least ensured one stable meal to the children of marginalized communities. The Bihar government claimed to have initiated corrective action immediately. It was only after the National Human Rights Commission and Patna High Court, which took suo moto action on newspaper reports that the state government ordered distribution of rations to school children for three months and transfer of money to their bank accounts or that of their guardians in lieu of the food scheme. This is a case of one state while the situation on this front in other states is yet to be probed and ground situation assessed. The Mid-Day Meals have already been missed in many schools across the country. In the meantime, the child experts have questioned the efficacy of the dry rations as a substitute for cooked meals or whether the steps taken by the state government were enough or not. The case of the Musahar children of Bhagalpur should lead to conversations and debates about food security for children from underprivileged communities across the country during the pandemic. With schools closed and Anganwadi workers engaged in Corona surveillance work, there is a real danger that the nutrition of such children could be compromised. In fact, food security of majority of the people including the migrant workers has been compromised and most them went hungry and without rations.
It must be remembered that the scheme at the central level began in 1995 after Tamil Nadu was the first state to introduce the Mid-Day Meal scheme way back in 1960s.
However, initially, most states in the country got away by providing dry rations. It took a Supreme Court order of 2001 to introduce cooked mealsfor all states. The SC order also specified that the meals should provide children with "at least 300 calories and 8-12 grams of protein each day of school for a minimum of 200 days in a year". Since then, a large body of scholarly work has shown how hot, cooked food attracted students to schools and improved their nutritional status. By noting the centrality of the Mid-Day Meal scheme in the food security of children, the SC alerted state governments at an early stage of the pandemic: 'Non-supply of nutritional food to the children as well as lactating and nursing mothers may lead to large-scale malnourishment, particularly in rural and tribal areas". Taking suo motocognisance of the matter on March 18 last, the Supreme Court asked states to ensure that 'schemes for nutritional food for children are not adversely affected'. Most states, including Bihar, responded by substituting Mid-Day Meals with dry rations. But such rations are not sufficient. It is no secret that the pandemic has led to widespread economic distress among more than half of the population in the country. In such times, the need to strengthen food security programmes cannot be overstated, especially in Bihar, whichis one of the worst performers on child nutrition. Bihar and other states have a lot to learn from Kerala, which ensured that the Mid-Day Meal scheme remained operational during the pandemic. The Centre and the states should also take note of the SC's warning that while dealing with Corona crisis, the situation should not lead to creation of another crisis.



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