As the debate continues, it is important to understand why activists are making a case for eggs in mid-day meals. Farzana Afridi, an associate professor with the Indian Statistical Institute, tells Lounge about the role school meals can play in enhancing children’s cognitive abilities
Eggs were at the heart of a recent political controversy in Madhya Pradesh, with the state’s chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, declaring that his government would not be distributing them in anganwadis during mid-day meals. Instead, starting 17 September, these have been replaced with milk to combat malnutrition.
This is not the first time a war over eggs has broken out in the state. In 2015 too, the Chouhan-led government had asked officials to do away with eggs in mid-day meals in anganwadis—a decision the short-lived Congress government under chief minister Kamal Nath had proposed to overturn last year. The then leader of the opposition, Gopal Bhargava, had suggested that this serving of eggs “would turn children into cannibals" and was not in sync with “our culture", which prohibits non-vegetarianism.
This "vegetarian versus non-vegetarian" debate continues to rear its head over and over again. But it is important to understand why activists are making a case for eggs in mid-day meals children. A 2015 report on the National Public Radio(NPR) quoted food rights activist Sachin Jain as saying that eggs were an easy way to provide much needed protein and fat to malnourished children. “They are easy to procure locally, and storage and transportation aren’t a problem," he had said.
For a state with the highest stunting rate, of 42%, according to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), a state where a Unicef report says 2.7 million children under age 5 are wasted, this could perhaps have been a significant intervention. “Hunger and malnutrition can adversely affect students’ performance by lowering their cognitive ability during school hours," says Farzana Afridi, associate professor, economics and planning unit, at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi.
In 2005, she analysed the findings of a survey of the mid-day meal programme in Madhya Pradesh. She has also been studying the efficacy of child welfare programmes and child nutrition in India. In an interview with Mint, Afridi talks about the role school meals can play in children’s overall health. Edited excerpts:
Your thoughts on the Madhya Pradesh government’s decision to replace eggs with milk in mid-day meals at anganwadis.
My previous work on the nutritional impact of school meals in the Chhindwara district of Madhya Pradesh shows that there is a significant role that school meals can play in meeting the nutritional requirements of children. Since protein deficiency is significant in our children, it is important to ensure that school meals fill that gap by giving wholesome meals that provide proteins, iron and other micronutrients, besides carbohydrates.
There have been news reports that some anganwadis in the country are not able to provide even the most basic meals. What should the mid-day meal programme be focusing on?
Ensuring that children receive their daily nutritional requirements should be the main objective of school meals. Even with social distancing, this goal can be achieved because the cook lives in the community and the foodgrains are stored locally. The public distribution system has continued to function reasonably well through the lockdown period and beyond. Millions of children depend on these meals for their daily food requirements.
What did your surveys suggest about the implementation and nutritive content of the mid-day meal programme across states?
Utilizing the data that I collected in Madhya Pradesh in 2003-04, I examined the extent to which children benefit from the targeted public transfer. Relying upon built-in randomness in whether a child’s 24-hour food consumption recall was for a school or a non-school day, I found that the daily nutrient intake of programme participants increased substantially by 49% to 100% during the transfers. The findings suggest that for as low a cost as 3 cents per child per school day, the scheme reduced the daily protein deficiency of a primary school student by 100%, the calorie deficiency by almost 30% and the daily iron deficiency by nearly 10%. At least in the short run, therefore, the programme had a substantial effect on reducing hunger at school and in protein–energy malnutrition.
The southern states, such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, have implemented the programme better in the sense of ensuring the meals are wholesome and regular. In a 2005 article in the Economic And Political Weekly, I compared the programmes of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka and suggested some changes in policy, which are still relevant. Comparison of the new suruchi bhojan with the old daliya programme in the government primary schools in the survey area, and observations on programme implementation in Karnataka, suggested a pressing need to overhaul the administrative and financial organization of the scheme in order to increase its effectiveness. Urgent improvements in the nutritive content of meals and related infrastructure require earmarked funds and a transparent and representative agency for effectively implementing and monitoring the scheme at the grass-roots level.
States like Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have a high tribal population, which has a non-vegetarian diet. How important is it for the mid-day meal programme to take the sociocultural background of the children into account while devising the meal plan?
While designing the menu, the local eating habits of the population should be taken into account. But at the same time school meals should ensure that these meals diversify the diet of children such that the deficiency in their diets is reduced. For instance, rural populations tend to have a carb-heavy diet with lower consumption of dal and iron-rich food. School meals should be designed such that these deficiencies are lowered for the children by supplementing the local diet.
You conducted a novel school-based experiment between 2009-10 to study whether the provision of meals to malnourished students during school hours could improve their performance in cognitive tasks in the classroom How did you conduct the survey?
I, along with co-authors Bidisha Barooah and Rohini Somanathan, conducted a lab-in-the-field experiment, leveraging the extension of India’s school meal programme from primary to middle grades in 16 Sarvodaya schools of the directorate of education of Delhi in the academic year 2009-10. The idea was to study the effects of school-based supplementary nutrition on students’ cognitive effort in the classroom. We found that the provision of meals improved the cognitive performance of students by 13% to 16%. Our findings suggested that improvements in classroom attention and concentration due to school meals can be a mechanism through which long-term learning outcomes may improve in developing countries.
We conducted the tests before and after the extension of an ongoing free school meal programme to upper primary grades (VI-VIII) in public schools in Delhi, which were providing free cooked meals to primary grades as part of a federal programme, popularly known as the mid-day meal scheme since 2003. Sampled schools were revisited for a second round of data collection (endline) between February and April 2010, when all public schools were providing the meals in upper primary grades.
What were the findings of this survey?
We found that school meals significantly improved performance of grade VII students. Between baseline and endline, the gain in the number of maze puzzles correctly solved in treated schools showed a 13% improvement in performance. Since we did not observe grade VII students in the rest of the schools before they received the meals, we could not be sure that the gains were due to different school-level trends or not. We addressed this by analysing data for grade V students. When we disaggregated students’ performance into pre- and post-recess, we found that the overall improvement in performance of students could be attributed to higher maze scores in the post-recess sessions (following the consumption of school meals in recess) and in the relatively more difficult maze puzzles.
This suggests that alleviating classroom hunger can impact learning outcomes via improved effort and cognition.