The HRD ministry has issued fresh guidelines to ensure quality and hygiene of the mid-day meals, introduced in 1995 with two objectives: improve school attendance and the health of school-going children.
Eighteen years later, the scheme has met the first objective to a great extent but has been found deficient on the second, which came into limelight after death of 23 school children in Bihar.
It was because of the mid-day meal scheme that enrolment at primary level in schools increased from 107.1 million in 1995 - 96 to 137.7 million in 2011-12, meaning that about 99% of the children were in school.
More children in schools with the provision of free lunch have not essentially resulted in children’s improved health although it has addressed the issue of classroom hunger.
A Planning Commission study in 2010 said the schools had failed to monitor whether the mid-day meal scheme had resulted in improvement in the health of children. The panel also found that in most schools across states, except Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the infrastructure to ensure proper and hygienic food was missing.
The ministry recently asked the state governments to set up management structures at various levels for effective management and implementation of the scheme.
The order also says that the food should be tasted by a school teacher before served to children and Members of Parliament should be part of the monitoring mechanism.
“There were a lot of variations across states in the implementation of the scheme,” said Reetika Khera, who teaches in the humanities and social sciences department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.
“The basic is ensuring a good menu in schools like in Tamil Nadu so that children get nutritious food”.
To a large extent, Tamil Nadu, and to some extent, Rajasthan have ensured that children get nutritious food. HRD ministry wants the states to emulate good practices adopted by states such as Tamil Nadu, where fruits and vegetables are provided on regular basis, improve efficacy of the scheme and nutrition quality of the food.
Another repeated concern of many state governments and mid-day meal advisors was related to the poor quality of food grains provided by the Food Corporation of India.
“We are looking at different options to improve food grain quality including purchasing them from state government public sector undertakings as done in Orissa and Punjab,” a ministry official said. Khandelwal suggested an alternative and that was to allow the schools to buy foodstuff.
The ministry is also in agreement with activists that a way out of this problem was to introduce community participation.
“The states having strong people participation like Tamil Nadu and Kerala have shown best results. Others have failed,” said NC Saxena, a Supreme Court-appointed food commissioner.
Harsh Mander, former IAS officer and National Advisory Council (NAC) member, said mid-day meal was a simple scheme to implement but for its success there should be political will.