Micro managing mid-day meal schemes is a huge challenge for schools and communities, as recent instances of contamination point out 

The initial report of a fact finding team sent to Dharamsati by Bihar Lok Adhikar Manch (BLAM), State alliance supported by CRY (Child Rights and You), has detected serious negligence by the school authority as food grains and cooking oil were reportedly preserved in the same room with insecticides and chemical manure. 

What is more, the cooking oil was reported to be preserved in an old can of insecticide. The school also did not have a dedicated kitchen shed, and the mid-day meal was prepared in the open veranda of the community hall, which itself was a major violation of norms.   

The govt.-run primary school at Dharamsati seems to be no exception, as very similar facts have come out from a recent RTE stock taking survey jointly conducted in Bihar by BLAM and CRY. Findings of the survey report, which await official release, show that almost half of the government schools in the State do not provide quality food in mid-day meal programmes. 

As per the study conducted in 2013 by BLAM and CRY in 210 primary schools from 21 districts in Bihar, 26 per cent respondents said that though the MDM (mid-day meal) programme is more or less regular, the quality is not satisfactory; whereas 21 per cent respondents observed that it was both irregular and poor in quality. Another data from the same report indicates that 58 per cent of the schools surveyed do not have a dedicated kitchen shed. 

Vijaya lakshmi Arora, director, Policy Research and Advocacy CRY said, “The incident once again proves that standards of services that are offered to children are far below expectation, and raise this question whether children are the priority of anyone at all in this country?” 

Similar findings from a recent survey conducted by CRY volunteers in 2013 in certain pockets of Kolkata revealed that even in the metro cities, the on-ground scenario is hardly any better. The survey indicated that (according to the respondents) in around one-third of the schools surveyed quantity of the meal was inadequate, as 33 per cent of the schools didn’t provide any second helping.

Regarding nutritional quality of the meal, 50 per cent of the schools reportedly did not serve any green vegetables to the students. Though egg is part of the menu for only 60 per cent of the schools, it was served very irregularly. Reportedly 25 per cent of the schools provided egg only once a week, while 12.5 per cent of the schools had it on their menu twice a week. This suggests that the meal was far from balanced and the minimum protein requirement as specified in MDM didn’t seem to be met in any school. 

According to respondents’ feedback, 12 per cent of the schools surveyed in the Rajabazar slum area of Kolkata had very unhygienic cooking areas. The remaining 88 per cent though had cleaner cooking spaces, often they were located just beside a dingy canal which made the cooking environment particularly unhygienic, and the food cooked vulnerable to dangerous contaminations. At least 25 per cent of the surveyed schools had dirty and unclean cooking area surroundings. 

A recent national survey conducted by CRY on RTE compliances in schools points out similar gaps in the mid-day meal programme. According to respondents’ feedback from 71 districts in 13 States across the country, in 18 per cent schools MDM was either not cooked inside a designated kitchen or schools did not have a kitchen space at all. More alarmingly, around 20 per cent schools were reported not to have availability of safe drinking water, while 12 per cent schools had source of drinking water (tap/hand pump) outside the school premises. 

Meanwhile, UNICEF is in touch with the concerned authorities to understand what happened and find ways to prevent such incidents from taking place in the future.   

While acknowledging that India's Mid Day Meal scheme is the largest school feeding programme in the world, and that the government is working to strengthen and improve its management, UNICEF considers that increased action must be urgently taken. 

Protocols for adequate and safe preparation of MDM are in place. They include keeping the cooking place and utensils clean and free from insects and flies, adequate and safe storage space; proper washing of vegetables and other ingredients before cooking; proper personal hygiene of the cook and helper, tasting of food before serving; and hand washing with soap by children before eating, UNICEF said in a statement here.    

The implementation of these protocols is, however, a challenge. Improved management and quality control of the MDM implementation by school authorities and communities is critical. The active engagement of School Management Committees and parents is crucial for quality assurance and monitoring of the programme, it said.