Indian authorities say a school that served poisoned meals to children recently in the state of Bihar wasn't subjected to government checks on food preparation and storage.
For years, studies of the scheme have found problems with food handling and storage in schools across the country, but little has been done to address the issues.
It is early morning and workers are busy at a kitchen in Vrindavan town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. They are preparing food for 165,000 students in over 1600 schools across the district -- rotis, lenti curry and rice.
Insulated and dust-free delivery vans are then used to ferry the cooked meals to schools in the district.
This grand scheme, which is perhaps the largest intervention against hunger, has had its share of problems.
Like for example the tragic incident in the northern state of Bihar where over 20 children died last week when traces of pesticide were found in their food. Poor management and quality control of the mid-day meal scheme are some of the problems faced.
But critics agree if India's school enrolment rate has risen in the last few years, especially among girls, mid-day meal schemes deserve a share of the credit.
Sunil Sharma is an administrator overseeing the distribution of food for children in a district in north India.
“It is a big challenge to manage this scheme because it is very big and scattered. We have to manage it in a good manner so that we can provide good quality and better meals to the students. This is helpful because in India nutrition is a problem. Nutrition content is also low due to poverty and poor food supply.”
At a dilapidated government school building, school children are hard at work in their classrooms. Almost everyone has come to attend school on empty stomachs.
Om Vir Singh is the school principal. The government school boasts of an attendance of over 100 students from Class 3 to Class 8.
“This scheme is a big blessing for children, especially the poor kids who never get to eat a hot and healthy meal. They can only concentrate on their studies when they have nutritious food. And for many children, this is the only meal they have through the day.”
READ ALSO: INDIA CHILD LABORS
After the ritual prayer that normally precedes lunch, the students line up enthusiastically to pick up their plates and sit in neat rows for their sumptuous meal.
“I think it is good,” says Rajvati, a class 8 student, whose father is a daily wage laborer. “For those who come hungry like me, this lunch is a blessing. I love the sweet dish at the end.”
“The spices are less in these meals and that makes it tasty,” says Suraj, another student has been enjoying the scheme for the last 4 years. “We never get to eat such food at home and that's why this is a treat. This meal gives us energy and helps us concentrate.”
Teachers, despite odds, strive to feed children regularly. The scheme has also helped in a more modest way in tackling malnutrition.
The latest UN Human Development Report states that 47% of Indian children under the age of 5 years are undernourished. Like in several crucial welfare schemes, the government is joined by private companies and NGOs.
Akshaya Patra is the Indian government's largest NGO partner, running 17 state-of-the-art kitchens across eight states. Narasimha Dasa, oversees the network in Uttar Pradesh.
“When we started this program in the rural areas, teachers would call the children and segregate the upper and lower caste students. That used to be the thing. Over a period of time what we have seen is that all the children sit together. All caste barriers are broken down. This is an intangible yet important contribution of a mid-day meal scheme served for children at one time.”
Dasa points to other benefits.
“We also did a third party independent survey by an agency to study the classroom performance due to the mid-day meal. So there has been a marked improvement, there has been an improvement in attendance and an improvement in enrolment.”
Over the last decade, annual spending has increased from 1.2 billion to over 5 billion US dollars today.
As with most of India's large state-run social schemes, the performance of the free meals programme varies from state to state.
The problems remain, but the real challenge in the country is how to deliver this program up to the last mile.