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A Big Fat Indian Success Story: The Midday Meal Scheme

Although marked by recent controversy, the mid-day meal scheme is one of India’s big success stories. Maybe we forget this, because we don’t hear enough about how great it is – especially in Karnataka.

Akshay Patra –one of the main vendors for the scheme in Karnataka – has come under fire for providing bland food without onion or garlic and for not providing egg, due to the organizations own “satvic” dietary restrictions. There have been concerns that this limits the positive impact of the scheme because kids don’t eat the food. Others are concerned that Akshay Patra signals growing privatization of state services.

I have recently started going to a government-aided school in downtown Bangalore every Friday to try and better understand the issues around the midday meal scheme. My daughter and I serve the students and also eat the Akshay Patra food with them. Like kids everywhere, the girls at RBANMS Bifurcated Girls High School don’t always eat the vegetables (depending on what’s served), and eat way too much rice (my daughter only eats the rice). The kids say sometimes the food is tasty and sometimes it’s not, depending on the day. I like the food, and if you eat less of the rice (refined carbohydrates) and more of the vegetables it’s a healthy meal. But, it is definitely very bland for the south Indian palate. From now on though, I am going to take a boiled egg for my daughter so she doesn’t only eat plain rice on Fridays. Obviously, all the girls should get eggs.

Nevertheless, the scheme gives us much to celebrate. The kids get a healthy meal at least once a day – creating a more hospitable and productive learning environment.

History of the scheme

Maybe we can appreciate the scheme more if we understand where it came from. It took forty years for the midday meal scheme to scale up nationally, from its inception in Tamil Nadu in the early 60s. In the 80s a few other states took it up, so by the early 90s twelve states had midday meal programs. In 2001, the PUCL took the central government to court and forced it to make the program national, and it became a national program in 2003. We should recall the efforts of civil society in bringing this scheme to scale, it wasn’t simply government benevolence.

Nutritional status

We may also need to take heed of the urgency of undernutrition in India to appreciate the scheme. The nutritional status of children is alarmingly poor (36% are underweight according to the 2015-6 NFHS data) – but nutrition status is typically measured in children under 5 who are too young for school – so the success of the scheme has not affected these indicators.

However, the nutrition of adolescent girls is also very important in India – where the prevalence of anemia is high (53% of all women according to the 2015-6 NFHS data). Of the different nutritional deficiencies, the main contributors to health problems are;

  • iron deficiencies (anemia), which can reduce children’s cognitive function, and cause pregnancy complications and low birth weight babies; and

  • vitamin A and zinc deficiencies, which can affect immune function, leaving people more vulnerable to disease.

The government currently has schemes to distribute iron and folic acid tablets through school and these are typically not successful – girls spit out the tablets because of the side-effects (nausea and constipation – especially if you take the tablets on an empty stomach). So this midday meal is an important nutritional intervention. The rice in the Akshay Patra scheme has been fortified using Ultra Rice® technology are made with rice flour and micronutrients—including iron, zinc, vitamin A, folic acid, thiamine, and other B vitamins.

This has again been contentious in India, micronutrients are available in local foods, so fortification can seem like an unnecessary expense that undermines traditionally healthy local diets. And yet, from what I have seen, many girls simply don’t eat enough of the vegetables served to them – even when they have learned about the nutritional benefits. I think under-nutrition is an emergency and needs the most expedient response – even if it is not the ideal response.

Educational attendance

The biggest success of the scheme is improved school attendance. Girls attending secondary school is a big all-round winner – it typically delays marriage, pregnancy and child-birth, and educated mothers have healthier kids. In addition, educated women are more employable – and obviously in a better position to take advantage of the economic growth of a city like Bangalore. They are also likely to have more decision making power in their homes.

Social Cohesion

I don’t think this is as visible in a city like Bangalore, but across India one of the visible successes of the scheme is getting kids from different castes and communities to eat together.

Furthermore: I liked reading Jean Dreze’s book of essays Sense and Solidarity that included a number about the midday meal scheme…even though many of the essays were a bit old and basic.

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