What The Scrapped Breakfast At School Plan Would Mean For Children

The veto comes months after the National Family Health Survey reported an alarming drop in the nutrition levels of children.

The National Education Policy, when released by the Union government last month, proposed to bring in provisions for serving breakfast to elementary school students. While several suggestions of the NEP became contentious leading to a war of words between the Union government and non-BJP ruled state governments, the proposal to extend the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) found universal acceptance.

Despite all these discussions and receiving a thumbs up from the Union Cabinet, the government has dropped the breakfast at school scheme and the extension of mid-day meal schemes.

The NEP had noted that children are unable to learn optimally when they are undernourished or unwell.

The Coronavirus pandemic and closure of schools had an impact on 888 million children worldwide, according to data released by UNESCO. The situation in India is even more grim. The impact was on 247 million children in the country who continue to face disruptions in their education. It is to be noted that even before the onset of the coronavirus crisis, six million boys and girls were already out of school.

What Was The Breakfast Proposal?

The NEP, 2020 which replaced the 34 year old National Education Policy framed in 1984 had proposed supplementing the mid-day meals provided to students in government and aided schools with breakfast.

"Children are unable to learn optimally when they are undernourished or unwell. Hence, the nutrition and health (including mental health) of children will be addressed, through healthy meals and the introduction of well-trained social workers, counsellors, and community involvement into the schooling system," the NEP had noted.

Spelling out the rationale behind the move to serve breakfast at schools, the policy had stated, "Research shows that the morning hours after a nutritious breakfast can be particularly productive for the study of cognitively more demanding subjects and hence these hours may be leveraged by providing a simple but energizing breakfast in addition to mid-day meals."

The policy had also suggested that basic utensils needed for serving food like tumblers, pots, plates, spoons, etc need to be provided. In places where it was not possible to provide hot meals, it was suggested that simple yet nutritious meals like Chana mixed with jaggery or groundnuts may be given.

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The NEP's recommendation to add breakfast had also received a thumbs up from the Union Cabinet which approved it in August 2020.

What Does The Mid-Day Meal Scheme Mean For Children?

A recent study by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has brought to light the long-term consequences of the mid-day meal scheme. A statement released by IFPRI, Harold Alderman, co-author of the study, had said that the findings from previous evaluations of India's MDM scheme have "shown a positive association with beneficiaries' school attendance, learning achievement, hunger and protein-energy malnutrition, and resilience to health shocks such as drought—all of which may have carryover benefits to children born to mothers who participated in the programme."

The study had also noted that the effects of the MDMS on health were multi-generational; children born to young women who had received school meals in 2004 were less likely to be stunted.

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Despite the many positive consequences of the MDMS, it can not be denied that the nutritional value of the meals need to be improved and as India begins to move from food security to nutrition security, the breakfast supplementing the mid-day meals would be crucial.

The mid-day meal scheme has proven effective in boosting enrollment rate and bringing down the dropout rate across the nation.

As early as April 2020, the World Food Programme had issued a warning on the possibility of a 'hunger pandemic' affecting millions of children worldwide. Interestingly, several reports had warned about the alarming dips in the Mid-day meals scheme coverage even before the onset of the pandemic. The situation worsened further as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the country.

Why Did The Government Scrap The Scheme From NEP?

A few weeks after the Modi government had organised several events to mark the one year anniversary of the NEP, it has been revealed that the breakfast at school proposal has been dropped for now.

Recently, the breakfast at school scheme and the extension of mid-day meal schemes to pre-primary classes had been taken up for discussion by the Parliamentary standing committee.

When the committee asked the Education Ministry about the status of the breakfast at school scheme, the education ministry in its response stated that while the decision to cover pre-primary classes by the MDMS was approved by the Ministry of Finance, the MoF did not agree to breakfast at school proposal owing to the paucity of funds.

How Much Would Breakfast Scheme Cost?

According to estimates, the breakfast at school scheme would have cost the Central government Rs 4,000 crore. The government presently incurs an expenditure of about Rs 11,000 crore for feeding mid-day meals to about 12 crore students across the country.

It is worth noting here that the school department's budget for the current financial year was also slashed by Rs 5,000 crore. The School Education Department saw an 8% cut in allocation from the 2020-21 budget estimate of ₹59,845 crore to ₹54,873 crore in 2021-22.

Is There A Solution?

Dr R. Gopinath, senior scientist at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) said that the government can introduce a "cost-effective breakfast scheme" under the MDMS. "Lessons can be learned from Gujarat and Kerala," he said. These states that have been providing breakfasts along with mid-day meals.

Expanding on the examples, he said, "In Kerala, the higher participation of local bodies has facilitated the supplementing of mid-day meals with breakfast. In some areas, schools have taken over adjoining plots and brought them under cultivation. The yield is then utilized for providing breakfasts while resources from the state and Union government are used for the mid-day meals. The government can also identify high-risk malnutrition districts and selectively implement the scheme in such districts as soon as the schools reopen."

Dr Gopinath whose core areas of specialization are agrarian transformation, food security and the MDMS also suggests tapping into the CSR funds at the state level to fund the breakfast at school scheme.

There are numerous such instances in the mid-day meal scheme's long history from which the government can take a leaf or two.

For instance, in Tamil Nadu, which was the first state in the country to have a mid-day meal scheme, the Kamaraj government in the late 1950s had sought help from community organizations, individuals and even foreign governments and organizations when the Planning Commission had refused to disburse funds casting aspersions on the practical feasibility of the scheme.

Why Does India Need To Extend The MDMS?

The findings of several studies have thrown light on the importance of the MDMS scheme and the need to extend its scope and coverage as the pandemic rages on.

It is imperative to note the timing of the veto which comes months after the National Family Health Survey reported an alarming drop in the nutrition levels of children between 2015-2019. Eighteen states reported an increase in the number of children who were underweight, stunted or wasted below the age of five.

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Another study by the ICMR's National Institute of Nutrition says that two out of three deaths of children in India are associated with malnutrition. About 40% of the beneficiaries of the MDMS are completely reliant on the midday meals provided at schools. According to the findings of the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016-18, 35 percent of school-going children are underweight while 22 percent are stunted.

As schools begin to re-open, there is a strong possibility of children from marginalized backgrounds not joining schools again. In such a scenario, supplementing the mid-day meals provided in schools with breakfasts would have been, experts believe, an added incentive for such students to return to schools.

Omkar is a Mumbai-based freelance columnist who writes on Indian politics and current affairs. He tweets at @omkarismunlimit

Updated On: 2021-08-30T18:16:32+05:30
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