The nutrition fallout of school closures

COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem of child hunger and malnutrition

November 03, 2020 01:01 am | Updated 01:36 am IST

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.

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.

As many as 116 million children — actually, 116 million hungry children – is the number of children we are looking at when we consider the indefinite school closure in India. The largest school-feeding programme in the world, that has undoubtedly played an extremely significant role in increasing nutrition and learning among schoolgoing children, has been one of the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The flagship report of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 , released by the Food and Agriculture Organization in partnership with other UN organisations, painted a worrying picture, including the impact of COVID-19 on closure of schools and school meals. 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.

Pressing issue

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. The index is a combination of indicators of undernutrition in the population and wasting (low weight for height), stunting (low height for age), and mortality in children below five years of age. We are already far out in terms of achieving the ‘Zero Hunger’ goal, and in the absence of urgent measures to address the problemboth through necessary administrative measures and their effective delivery, the situation will only worsen. To place the urgency in context, 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.

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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. Further, these reports highlight the importance of innovative strategies to improving nutrition quality and food diversity under the MDM. This was insisted upon by NITI Aayog and the World Food Programme in their report on Food and Nutrition Security in India (2019). Many state governments, like Tamil Nadu (a pioneering state in MDMS) and Puducherry introduced innovations to convert MDMS into a Nutritious Meal Programme.

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, 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. This was 60 thousand tonnes, or 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.

Also Read | World Food Programme: Leading the global fight against hunger

Data and media reports indicate that dry ration distributions in lieu of school meals are irregular . Further, since the distribution of dry ration started only in late May, a few experts — like Dipa Sinha of Ambedkar University — advocating on children’s issues are calling for immediate distribution of the April quota, to which the children are entitled.

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. In July this year, the Madras High Court also took cognisance of the issue and asked the Tamil Nadu government to respond on the subject of how, with schools closed, the nutritional needs of children were being fulfilled. While many State governments have now initiated dry rations provisionin lieu of school meals, there are still challenges for this to be fulfilledin ensuring last-mile delivery.Ensuring functioning of MDMS during the pandemic period, where children are under threat of nutrition and food insecurity, must be high priority. Serving hot meals, at the children’s homes or even at the centre, may have challenges in the present scenario. Even States like Tamil Nadu, with a relatively good infrastructure for the MDMS, are unable to serve the mandated ‘hot cooked meal’ during the lockdown for multiple reasons.

Innovative strategies

Local smallholder farmers’ involvement in school feeding is suggested by experts, such as Basanta Kumar Kar, who has been at the helm of many nutrition initiatives. He suggests a livelihood model that links local smallholder farmers with the mid-day meal system for the supply of cereals, vegetables, and eggs, while meeting protein and hidden hunger needs, which could diversify production and farming systems, transform rural livelihoods and the local economy, and fulfill the ‘Atmanirbhar Poshan’ (nutritional self-sufficiency) agenda. The COVID-19 crisis has also brought home the need for such decentralised models and local supply chains.

There are also new initiatives such as the School Nutrition (Kitchen) Garden under MDMS 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. Thirdly, locally produced vegetables and fruits may be added to the MDMS, also providing an income to local farmers. Besides, distribution of eggs where feasible (and where a State provision is already there) can be carried out. Most of all, the missed mid-day meal entitlement for April may be provided to children as dry ration with retrospective effect.

Across the country and the world, innovative learning methods are being adopted to ensure children’s education outcomes. The GHI report calls for effective delivery of social protection programmes. With continuing uncertainty regarding the reopening of schools, innovation is similarly 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.

Bhavani R.V. has contributed to this article. The authors work with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation

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