The July 16th, 2013 midday meal tragedy in India’s Bihar state had directed attention towards the complex environment in which school feeding program operate. The tragic incident, in which 23 children lost their lives due to contaminated school meals, has at least subjected school feeding programs to a healthy and much required dialogue.
The Bihar school feeding public program is part of the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education or the ‘Midday Meals’ (MDM), and has been around since 1995, helping to feed 120 million children every day around the country. The program that distributes hot meals each school day is vital in India where malnutrition accounts for half of all childhood deaths (UNICEF).
In Bihar, India’s second poorest state and the last to comply with MDM, the incident was reportedly caused by the accidental insecticide poisoning of the school meals. Investigations have revealed that the vegetable oil used to prepare the food had been highly contaminated after being stored in a container previously used to stock pesticide. Additionally, the investigations reveal that the oil had been inappropriately stored in the school headmistresses’ home and that the food was not tasted, or tested, by at least one teacher before being served to students, as regulated by the MDM scheme.
A planning commission evaluation performed in 2010 highlighted some of its shortcomings across the Indian States. In Bihar specifically, the programs limitations include the lack of involvement of local panchayats and urban local bodies in the school feeding monitoring processes and the excessive freedom allowed to school administrators in implementing the program. In addition, the lack of state planning and absence of proper coordination between Bihar State Food Corporation and district level officers resulted in erratic supplies of funds and food grain, which led to the overstocking in some schools and eventual breeding of insects.
The evaluation findings are not surprising in light of the tragedy that sadly occurred and shed a light on the complexity of national scaled up school feeding programs in the context of decentralization. On the macro level there are challenges to ensure that adequate quality is maintained across the country, where each state has their own governance and implementation structures. On the micro level the tragedy sheds a light on the importance of strong school feeding supply chain monitoring and procurement mechanisms.
Despite the complexity and challenges that face the important social public program, its benefits cannot be overstated. School feeding programs improve school attendance and enrollment; decrease economic burdens on families and improve the nutrition levels of children in countries where malnutrition and stunting is endemic. In India, where 1 in every 3 children is malnourished and where one fifth of children aged 6 to 14 are out of school (UNICEF), the program’s importance cannot be overemphasized.
Additionally, when school feeding programs are strongly linked to the country’s local agriculture, this can lead to improved agricultural production and improved farmers’ incomes. Therefore, school feeding is not just a social safety net but a means of economic development for the whole country.
As a global supporter of school feeding initiatives, Dubai Cares understands the value, crucial role and potential that these programs offer. The organization has supported school feeding programs in Ethiopia, Ghana, Bangladesh and Palestine. Dubai Cares has also been supporting home grown school feeding pilots in Ethiopia and Bangladesh where school feeding is not just nutrition and economic assistance program but also a vehicle to promote school health and nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene. In Ghana, Dubai Cares is improving the nutritional components of the government’s home grown school feeding program and in Gaza, 80,000 students have been provided with a daily locally produced energy date bar.
In the end of 2013, Dubai Cares hosted a School Feeding Learning Exchange where organizations, policy makers and academia shared experiences and where the Bihar tragedy was thoroughly referred to as a learning lesson for all countries.