By Mary Ann Chacko
On July 16, 2013, 23 children in the state of Bihar, India, lost their lives to food poisoning after eating the mid-day meal provided by their school. Since then newspapers have been reporting numerous cases of children falling ill after consuming mid-meals in their schools in various parts of India.
The mid-day meal scheme was launched by the Government of India in government and government-aided primary schools across the country in 1995. The purpose of this scheme was two-fold—in a country rocked by malnutrition, it sought to ensure that young children would receive at least one nutritious meal a day, and secondly it also sought to draw students to school so as to achieve the aim of universalization of primary education.
In the summer of 2010 I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant on a project funded by the ICICI Foundation. The study sought to examine the relationship between the pedagogical practices of school teachers (across three Indian states) and their worldviews. The purpose was to understand which of these worldviews needed to be addressed in order to support a paradigmatic shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered pedagogy. While I had my reservations about the assumptions that undergirded this project I was thrilled to be on the team due to the opportunity it afforded me to interact with teachers and students in two government schools in Kerala. While I am from the state of Kerala I had neither studied nor taught in government schools and hence I almost felt like a non-native researcher as I walked into these schools.
When I read about the mid-day meal related tragedies my mind went back to my experiences around mid-day meals in the two schools that I had visited. The stark difference that I encountered in the attitude towards the mid-day meal scheme was indicative of the nature of the school community that I encountered in the two institutions.
On my first visit to Kadamtala U.P School (names changed) I brought my lunch with me. I had my lunch along with the teachers and the principal in the staff room. In fact I was surprised to find that the principal joined the teachers for lunch everyday. When the teachers saw that I had brought my lunch they insisted that I not bring lunch to school and instead invited me to share the mid-day meal served at school. While the teachers did bring their lunch they also partook of the mid-day meal many a time. During my tour of the school the teachers proudly showed me the kitchen where the mid-day meal was cooked. At this school mothers took turns to help with and supervise the preparation of the mid-day meal and while raw provisions for the meal was provided by the government, vegetables for the meals also came from the vegetable garden at school.
Following a fortnight’s data collection at Kadamtala U.P. School I went to Mangalath U.P School. As I had got into the habit of sharing the mid-day meal at Kadamtala I did not take lunch with me on my first day at Mangalath. When the teachers found that I was planning to share the mid-day meal they were extremely apologetic and complained about the bad quality of the raw materials and the meals in general. None of the teachers partook of the mid-day meal. In fact their attitude seemed to imply that the quality of the mid-day meal was good enough for the low-income students who attended the school but not for the adults in the school.
In her critique of the mid-day meal scheme, Farzana Afridi (We, the Monitors, Indian Express, July 30, 2013) suggests community monitoring and supervision of the mid-day meal scheme as a potential corrective to the flaws in the scheme. While I’m suspicious of the trend to propose ‘community-participation’ as a panacea for any and every problem in the Third World, I agree that the school community—the administration, teachers and parents—need to be invested in the provision and preparation of the mid-day meals. And the school community partaking of these meals together might be a good place to start.
Photo credit: here
[Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral student in the Dept. of Curriculum & Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation project explores school-police partnerships in Kerala, India. She blogs at: Chintavishta.]
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