Millennium Post

Mid-day meals for kids are in a mess

Union Minister Maneka Gandhi’s bid to restrict consumption of fast food and drinks by school children is a laudable but futile exercise. She aims to achieve this objective by banning the sale of fast food and cold drinks in and around school premises, all across the country. If the all mighty United States could do little to change the eating and drinking habits of its children despite stringent measures, there is no reason to believe that a loosely worded official diktat will succeed. Controversies like the one surrounding the Maggi brand may impact fresh foreign direct investment (FDI) in the food processing sector in the country. Given this context, It appears that the government is divided on the issue of production, sale and consumption of processed foods, including fast food and soft drinks. Logically, the sale of popular ‘mithai’ products needs to be restricted, if not banned altogether. 

Indians – from children to grandparents – are almost pathologically attached to sweetmeats of all sorts. Sweets are part of almost every Indian celebration, including political victories. However, it must be admitted that there is nothing emotional about Maneka Gandhi’s letter to her cabinet colleagues. She has merely gone by the recommendations of a high-powered working group, constituted by her ministry. The community recommended promotion of healthy snacks to combat the spread of non-communicable diseases during early adulthood, including a range of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and dyslipidemia. The country is facing an enormous burden of malnutrition and undernutrition among children as well as excess intake of calories by a section of children causing obesity amongst young adults.

The terms of reference of the working group covered a whole lot of areas – from the definition of junk foods to guidelines for adaptation by state governments/ union territories on the sale of junk foods in school canteens. National Institute of Nutrition director T Longvah was the working group’s chairperson.

Among others, the working group recommended the ban of all unhealthy foods in school canteens and private vendors and street vendors should not be allowed to sell such food within 100 meters of schools. And, the school management must promote healthy, wholesome and nutritious foods with right portion size. It also recommended restricted sale -- for instance, once a month – of non-standardised or proprietary foods.

The working group wants that a school canteen should provide nutritious, wholesome and healthy foods to children. The purpose of making these school canteen guidelines are to encourage the development of healthy eating habits among school children; provide a wide range of options for healthy and nutritious food and beverages in schools to promote a healthy diet. The ideas are lofty, if not utopian altogether. The bureaucrats and veteran members in the working group are probably not aware that parents and guardians of most children are working couples, who use professional caterers and fast food joints for even small domestic parties such as birthdays and anniversaries. Given the modern day living pressures and conditions, few would opt for the implementation of such grand guidelines for food and drinks for school children.

In fact, the administration is facing a serious problem to run the free mid-day meal scheme for poor children up to junior school standards, even 20 years after it was first launched by the Narasimha Rao government. The scheme has created more corruption and controversies than any other social support programmes in the country. The whole project is under review. The scheme failed to inculcate proper education among poor and hungry children, who are sent to schools more for mid-day meals and uniforms than real study. All that it may have achieved is to feed 120 million poor children across the country daily. The programme is rife with corruption. It frequently endangers and lets down the vulnerable population it seeks to serve. The news of contaminated or poor quality mid-day meals killing hordes of children is common every year. The situation is worse in remote villages and locations, where children are most in need of a nutritious meal.

If the present government is rethinking the mid-day meal programme for the famished and undernourished junior school children because of the way it is being misused or delivered, why is it out to underline a food-habit changing programme for those less-controllable richer students in schools to ensure their balanced nutrition? Instead, the government and the school management would do well by educating parents on preferable diets to their children and, maybe, control the latter’s daily pocket money to restrict their daily expenses on junk food and beverages. IPA
(The views expressed are personal)
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