Friday, February 01, 2008

Government denies biscuit manufacturers chance to get into mid-day meal scheme

For some time now, there has been a concerted push to get into the mid-day meal scheme for school children. The introduction of the mid-day cooked meal for school children has been a major factor in the increase of school attendance, especially in rural areas. Pushed and prodded by the courts and by large sections of educators, the Ministry of Education run scheme provides funds for meals in 9.5 lakh schools across the country. Overall, the scheme has been a great success in its stated objective of encouraging parents to send their children to school. Schools provide cooked meals to children as per the local diet, and this also enthuses children to attend.
However, every silver lining has a dark cloud behind it, and in this case, the money involved was too great to resist. And hence there was a concerted push by manufacturers of biscuits and pre-cooked meals to get into the scheme; what better way than to try and point out positives of not using cooked meals. There are logistical issues with the whole cooking process, there is scope for corruption in terms of the process of sourcing of material for the cooked meals being decentralized, and so on. Further, pre-cooked meals and biscuits would allow the exact concentration of nutrients to be served to children. Seem very convincing points, and all of these were actually enumerated in an article in a weekly that I read some time back.
And then I started reading some more, and found that there were many more issues with the proposal. There was a position by an institute that deals with nutrients that essentially blasted the proposal, claiming that biscuits were essentially empty calories and not capable of supplying the nutrients required. In addition, further opinion by experts were skeptical about how many children would be enthused by biscuits; further there was an easy likelihood of biscuits seeming to be strange food to many areas of the country or carried away and not consumed by the children. And then the ultimate; the industry actually got 30 MP's to write a letter to the Ministry of Education in favor of the proposal, and at that time, much more opinion started to come out against change of the cooked food scheme.
So, it is good that finally the ministry has decided against this proposal.

The biscuit manufacturers' and ready-to-eat food industry's attempt to make 12 crore children their captive consumers through the mid-day meal (MDM) scheme has come a cropper. The HRD ministry has shot down the proposal of the two industries to supply either biscuits or pre-cooked meals to more than 9.5 lakh schools under the MDM scheme.
"Replacement of the Mid-Day Meal programme through supply of biscuits would not be in the nutritional interest of children, since it does not fulfill the nutritional norms, dietary requirement and satiety of children and further it also deprives many intrinsic benefits that are being derived through the present pattern," the minister said in his letter to the MPs.

However, at one point of time, it seemed that the proposal was actually working its way through the approval chain. It required some pressure from educators, and from the few articles in the media that cared about the mid-day cooked food program (not too many did though, and this is a very important issue central to human development). One can only feel relieved that the proposal got terminated.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 3:11 AM