Mid-Day Meals play a crucial role in guaranteeing child nutrition in the post-pandemic world
School meals ensure nutrition for millions of vulnerable children across the world. Almost 370 million children worldwide are covered by school feeding programmes. While 100 million school children benefitted from the noon meal scheme in India prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries like Brazil (48 million), China (44 million), South Africa (9 million) and Nigeria (9 million) too run similar programmes for school children. However, an estimated 39 billion in-school meals have been missed during school closures in 2020 by the 370 million children who were benefiting from school feeding programmes prior to the crisis, according to a recent working paper by UNICEF's Office of Research – Innocenti and UN's World Food Programme (WFP).
Titled COVID-19: Missing More Than a Classroom -- The impact of school closures on children’s nutrition, the research paper highlights the importance of the mid-day meal scheme (MDMS) in decreasing calorie deficits among children by 30 percent. Fixed-effects regressions (at the district or village level) indicate that there exists a negative and highly significant correlation between access to MDMS and lower height-for-age (i.e. stunting) scores. Data from the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) in 2005 and 2012 show that the noon meal scheme in the country is well targeted to children who need it the most, with beneficiaries having lower height-for-age (i.e. stunting) Z-scores than those who are not enrolled in MDMS.
Much of the negative impact of droughts on nutrition is entirely neutralised by the positive effect of the noon meal scheme in the country. Based on evidence based research outcomes, the study mentions that the risk of malnutrition was higher for children with mothers who did not complete primary education or were illiterate.
The working paper states that school feeding programmes can be modified so that they can be provided during times of school closures or crisis. Aside from giving it in the form of cooked meals, they can also be provided as take-home rations (THRs) or simply unconditional cash transfers (UCTs). Underlining the importance of school feeding programmes in ensuring food and nutrition among children from the poor and vulnerable households, the Supreme Court of India issued a notice to all states and union territories (UTs) in March 2020, asking them to continue providing MDMS even during school closures. This case has been cited by the working paper to exhibit India's commitment to combat hunger and malnutrition during the lockdown.
Media reports indicate that in Bihar and Uttarakhand, cash transfers were provided in lieu of MDMS via bank account transfers, whereas in Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha THRs were supplied to the school children’s families. The newly published working paper states that in Bihar, cash transfers to household worth Rs 114.21 per school child in class I–V (primary) and Rs 171.17 per schoolchild in class VI–VIII (upper primary) were made (which was the cost of 15 days of mid-day meals per child, as per the state government). In states like Kerala and Karnataka, foodgrains were home delivered. In some states like Haryana, teachers home delivered mid-day meal rations and cooking costs to the families of eligible students.
Evidence from both India and Ghana suggest that food insecurity during childhood adversely impacted reading, numeracy and English scores as well as short-term memory and self-regulation. Nutrition plays a vital role in the first 8,000 days of a child’s life for child development. Therefore, educational and nutritional disruption caused by school closures will have long-term consequences if not handled appropriately by various governments, warns the working paper.
School feeding programmes have helped in reducing anaemia among primary-school-aged girls and adult women in Uganda, shows the UNICEF-WFP working paper. Girls and children belonging to below poverty line households have benefitted from school meal programmes in Ghana. Such programmes are likely to improve learning and cognitive abilities. Almost 15 percent of average daily family income is saved by the families when schools feed children from needy families.
Although the working paper has asked the governments for adapting existing school feeding programmes to use take-home rations, top-up cash transfers or food vouchers, it emphasises on reopening schools safely since school-based targeting and delivery of nutrition is relatively cost effective. Governments have been urged by authors of the research paper for paying attention to programme design and formerly neglected issues, such as the quality of diets and food-fortification options.
Though governments across the globe have been publishing data on nutritional status of children below 5 years of age, there is a dearth of data on nutritional outcomes of children over 5 years. So, the UNICEF-WFP working paper has asked the governments to collect household level data to understand and assess the impact of school closures on school dropout and nutritional outcomes of school going children in addition to nutritional status of children who dropped out of schools and also children who are old enough to attain schools.
Budgetary allocation for MDMS
Although Rs. 19,946.01 crore was initially proposed to be allocated for the National Programme of Mid-Day Meals in Schools in 2020-21 (B.E.), only Rs. 11,000.00 crore was announced for the scheme in the Union Budget 2020-21. So, there was clearly a shortage to the tune of Rs. 8,946.01 crore for MDMS, says Report no. 312 presented to the Rajya Sabha on 5th March, 2020 by the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development.
In nominal terms, the Union Budget 2021-22 has increased allocation for MDMS from Rs. 11,000 crore in 2020-21 (B.E.) to Rs. 11,500 crore in 2021-22 (B.E.) i.e. an increase by nearly 4.5 percent. As per the latest available data, the amount spent on the Union Government's school feeding programme was Rs. 12,900 crore in 2020-21 (R.E.). The increase in MDMS allocation between B.E. and R.E. for 2020-21 by Rs. 1,900 crore has happened also because of the enhanced annual central allocation for cooking cost beginning from April, 2020. In its analysis of Union Budget 2021-22, Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) has stated that it is difficult to justify the reduction in the MDMS allocation in 2021-22 (B.E.) in comparison to the R.E. for the ongoing fiscal year.
Following a -7.7 percent pandemic-driven contraction estimated in 2020-21, India’s real GDP is projected to attain an economic growth of 11.0 percent in 2021-22, and nominal GDP is expected to grow by 15.4 percent next fiscal year, says the Economic Survey 2020-21. So, inflation is expected to be nearly 4.4 percent in the next fiscal year. In real terms, there has been almost no change (i.e. only a meagre increase by 0.1 percentage point in real terms) in MDMS allocation between 2020-21 (B.E.) and 2021-22 (B.E.) if we take into account 4.4 percent inflation in the next fiscal year.
The expenditure on MDMS as a proportion of total Union Government's expenditure was 0.36 percent in 2020-21 (B.E.), which reduced to 0.33 percent in 2021-22 (B.E.). Social activists have raised their concerns about slashing of funds for nutritional schemes like MDMS despite the high prevalence of under-nutrition among children in the country. A press release by the Right to Food Campaign dated 3rd February, 2021 has asked for immediate revival of hot cooked meals under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme and mid-day meals. Adequate budgetary provisions for inclusion of eggs in the meals has also been demanded, among other things, by food security activists.
However, Report no. 320 presented to the Rajya Sabha on 2nd February, 2021 by the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports mentions that in the last three financial years, funds provided in the budget for MDMS could not be fully utilised. For example, it has been found that the allocated funds for the North Eastern Region (NER) is not fully utilised. The number of children in NER is nearly 6 percent of the total number of children approved by the Programme Approval Board of Mid-Day Meal (PAB-MDM) under MDMS, whereas as per instructions of the Ministry of Finance, around 10 percent of the Budget Estimates for any scheme are to be allocated for NER states.
The related Rajya Sabha Committee has expressed its concern at the under-utilisation of funds and has recommended that a strategy should be evolved wherein the funds allocated under MDMS are utilised in a judicious manner. It has been suggested that if at the R.E. stage the funds cannot be utilised, then the concerned department should have in place collateral programmes where the funds may be diverted with the approval of the competent authorities.
The Fourth Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Empowerment of Women (2020-2021), which was presented to the Lok Sabha in February 2021, has mentioned that more and more tribal children should be provided with hot cooked meals on a daily basis to address and reverse nutritional deficiencies among tribal communities. In that report, the Parliamentary Standing Committee has recommended that the privately managed private schools in tribal areas as well as out-of-school tribal children, who slog away for days in agricultural fields or are involved in other menial tasks in or around the villages, should be covered by the MDMS. The Parliamentary Standing Committee has recommended to cover private schools in tribal areas as well as out-of-school tribal children under MDMS. While the private schools in tribal areas may be monitored closely by the Government functionaries for proper implementation of MDMS, funds should be allocated as per the existing norms by the Government to the school authorities, as per the Parliamentary Standing Committee report submitted in the Lok Sabha during February this year. For the out-of-school tribal children or school drop-outs, a parallel arrangement for daily cooking and serving of cooked food may be done by the local panchayats. The Committee has also suggested MDMS audits in regular periodicity by the states/ UTs.
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More than 39 billion school meals missed during COVID-19 pandemic: UN report -Madhumita Paul, Down to Earth, 3 February, 2021, please click here to access,
A Budget that fails to address the hunger pandemic -Dipa Sinha, The Hindu, 2 February, 2021, please click here to read more
Union Budget 2021-22: India's nutrition programme put on a diet -Vibha Varshney, Down to Earth, 1 February, 2021, please click here to read more
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Image Courtesy: Inclusive Media for Change/ Shambhu Ghatak
Tagged with: Child Nutrition Height-for-age ICDS MDMS Mid Day Meal Scheme Mid-Day Meals Noon Meal Scheme Out-of-school Children Pandemic School dropout School Feeding Programmes Stunting UNICEF Union Budget Union Budget 2021-22 WFP World Food Programme