A Free lunch for India's Children

In India, the old adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch" is just about dead, it seems, at least for millions of the teeming country's children. An ambitious initiative recently passed into law mandates that every child receive a free lunch every school day until they reach year 10.

It's lunchtime at the Jawahar Nagar Sindhi government school in Jaipur and the students are gathering in the dining hall. The menu: vegetables, rice, Indian bread, porridge and sweet rice. Before eating, the students thank God for the meal. One of them is a grade eight student named Lalita whose father works as a driver and struggles to support six children. She says she often misses breakfast as she has to leave for school early.

"The food is very good and I don't get such food at my home. I love eating this enjoyable lunch every day as it is very delicious," Lalita says.

Nor is Lalita alone. The lunch program has been dramatically successful and dramatically necessary. As many half of all Indian children under the age of 5 are believed to be malnourished. Meals such as those enjoyed by Lalita are being prepared for 150 million school children across the country. Following a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in 2001, state governments were ordered to provide free meals for all primary school children aged 10 and under. Last year the scheme was expanded to include children up to year 10.

Akshay Patra, an NGO, is running the program, probably the largest such school lunch program in the world. Chanchalapathi Dasa is the vice chairman of the group and believes the program is beneficial for several reasons.

"The program has encouraged the children to come to school and get nutritious food and do well in their education," Dasa said. "Our idea is that if we can feed children and provide them with nutritious food, that can be an encouragement for underprivileged families to send their children to school. As a result of good food, the educational practice becomes more productive and if the child gets educated, then they will break the cycle of poverty."

Dasa's group is currently providing food for 1.2 million children out of 19 kitchens. "The set-up is a large kitchen where we can cook food for 100,000 to 150,000 children at a time and transport the food to distant schools and feed them there," he says.

Teachers at the school say students now find it easier to concentrate and classrooms are getting crowded. Mahesh Kumar is an English teacher who welcomes the new initiative.

"Our registration has increased to a great extent and now our school is up to the secondary level and our enrolment is 350," Kumar said. "When I came here three years ago the enrollment was 150."

In many states, lunch has become a one-stop shop for children's health. Apart from the nutritional value of the cooked lunch, the children also get vitamin A, iron, folic acid and de-worming tablets. Iron and folic acid are especially important. According to a study in by the American Society for Nutritional Science, up to 70 percent of low-income adolescent girls in India suffered from anemia because blood lost during menstrual cycles meant iron wasn't being replaced. Children in the lunch program averaged weight gains of 3.3 kg more than those who were not in the program over five years and were significantly taller, according to a study by the Ministry of Human Resources Development. In addition, the study found, families are benefiting from the so-called "carry home effect," as children's nutritional knowledge grows and they take that knowledge home to their families.

Shakuntla's children are studying in the school and she too says the program is a big help to her family. "We can't cook such nutritious and costly food at home," she said. "We can't afford it. That's why my children eat less at home and more in school."

The mother of two, Lalit Kumar works in a grocery and says she has no time to cook a midday meal for her children: "Working parents are not able to come home and cook food for their children during lunch. The midday meal has solved our problem and now our children are eating and keeping healthy."

Back at the Jawahar Nagar Sindhi government school the bell tolls the end of the school day; no doubt the students will be back tomorrow. According to the Human Resources Development study, both attendance and class performance have improved: children want to come to school not only to eat but to learn.

This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.