One of the primary objectives of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme—the world’s largest school feeding programme — is to enhance children’s nutritional profile, thus having a positive impact on their health as well as learning outcomes. Nutrition, as we all know, forms the pillar for sustainable growth of the human body and mind. So elaborate measures are taken to ensure that the meal provided as a part of this school lunch initiative meets nutritional norms specified as a part of the MDM Guidelines.
Our cumulative lifelong learning capacities and productivity are enhanced by adequate nutrition in childhood. Therefore, investing in child nutrition is considered one of the most effective entry points for human development. This makes nutrition welfare schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and Mid-Day Meal Scheme—with children as their beneficiaries, integral to human development, and thus, socioeconomic development of the country.
The beneficiaries of the Mid-Day Meal Programme are children in the age group of 6 to 14 years. The speedy growth associated with this age creates increased demands for energy and nutrients, particularly at the peak of the adolescent growth spurt, when the nutritional requirements can be higher than the remaining period of adolescence. Therefore, it is necessary to address the nutritional gaps at this particular age by satiating short-term hunger and at the same time, providing opportunities to combat long-term hunger. Both are equally important to boost the concentration levels in the children for enhanced learning outcomes.
The nutritious meal no doubt serves as an incentive for children to come to school, thus opening for them the door to education and opportunities. This is evident from increased enrolment, attendance, and retention in schools across the country. The same is also validated by the first-hand accounts of parents who send their children to school only because it ensures them one proper meal every day. However, it is also instrumental in satiating short-term hunger and laying foundation for combating hunger and malnutrition in the long-term.
In the short-term, the Mid-Day Meal Programme seeks to address classroom hunger—an impediment to learning in children. As we all have experienced at some point or the other, hunger affects our concentration levels and hinders our ability to focus on the job at hand. Imagine a child coming to school without having breakfast! For many children, the mid-day meal is the first—and at times the only—proper meal of the day.
That the Mid-Day Meal Scheme is designed to ensure adequate nutrition for children is important, considering that a large number of its beneficiaries are at the peak of the adolescent growth spurt. While addressing the issue of classroom hunger is a short-term intervention, providing nutritious food to children over a considerable period is the long-term intervention to improve children’s nutritional and health status, thus leading to better cognition. As a result, children get better at interpretation, decision making, problem solving, etc., the cumulative impact of which is seen in the form of better long-term learning outcomes.
Moreover, when children are healthy, they are less likely to miss school due to illness, and considering that absenteeism is one of the major impediments when it comes to education, the nutritional mid-day meal is no doubt a blessing for children. In a country like India, where hunger and malnutrition are chronic issues, long-term exposure to a nutritional program as an educational intervention is of great significance. In ensuring that children get access to nutritional food every school day, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme is providing a platform for their physical and cognitive development, and in doing so, setting the stage for the bright future of the country.
The author is a Goodwill Ambassador at The Akshaya Patra Foundation