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Centralized kitchens more feasible for midday meals

Mid-Day Meal Scheme

23 July 2013

The Alternative

Roties and a paste of red chillies – this is what seven-year old Kishan Lal Gameti, from the village of Jogiyon Ka Gura in Rajasthan, would have for lunch. And it isn’t as if he got to eat lunch every day.

Orphaned at four, Kishan lives with his grandparents and loves school because he has never eaten food like this at home before.

To their credit, his maternal grandparents, have tried their best to see that Kishan got at least one piece of roti in a day. “It’s alright if we miss our share, but he’s a growing boy.” Looking around their crumbling mud hut with pieces of assorted plastic and flattened tin sheets serving as a roof, it’s evident that they would love to do more but they just don’t have the money or strength for it.

In the wake of the recent tragedy in Bihar, it has been most disappointing to see politicians embroiled in the usual blame-game politics. We must await the HRD Ministry’s report and take immediate action instead of politicizing the issue. It is tragedies like these that you expect to rile the political classes to unify in a quest for the truth.

The chief reason for the Bihar tragedy was an absolute lack of monitoring on the part of mandal block authorities. It goes without saying that a programme on this scale requires meticulous quality control and stringent monitoring systems in place. We were invited by the state government in 2003, when the Midday Meal was mandated, to setup a central kitchen in Hyderabad. The centralized kitchen approach we follow in Hyderabad is, perhaps, one of the more feasible models around. The 2 acre-large kitchen exemplifies how best to tackle the scale and logistics involved in the country’s largest feeding programme. Feeding more than 120,000 kids across 1035 schools in Hyderabad over the past decade, we have gradually come to find the optimal balance required in running an operation of this scale. On a national level, we cater to over a million kids across four states (Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha). Toll-free numbers provided to parents ensure that both the district authority as well a Naandi contact person is available at all times.

Gamana Lal, Kishan Lal’s grandfather has visited the school and seen with his own eyes that the meals are being served and that Kishan and the other children will actually getting unlimited helpings of the meal.“I heard from neighbours that the government school had started giving very tasty food for students at lunch. I owed it to Kishan to send him to school,” he said.

Kishan, on his part, returns the favour by packing a little of the meal he gets at school into a plastic bag for his “nana, nani.”

I like the sweet dalia and dal batti the best!” It has been almost 3 years and Kishan has since gained 2 kgs. He now hopes to bring his older brother and younger sister, who live with his paternal uncles, back to the village so that they too can enjoy the afternoon lunch like he does.

The kitchen is a state-of-the-art, all mechanized, sterilized facility. The centralized model also holds the advantage of being a single point location where we welcome government officials to visit and conduct surprise checks. Our dedicated staff taste all food prepared at the facility before it’s served to the children. In the case of Saran, processes were clearly not in place. Quality of food in the Bihar chapter of the Midday meal has been cause for concern for some time now. But above all else, not heeding the quality complaints from the children themselves was the greatest lapse of all!

Having handled operations of this scale closely over the past decade, I can merely speculate. It is my belief that there was an oversight on the part of the authorities, and perhaps a failure to notice that the oil used in the food may have been stored in pesticide containers.

(Ms. Leena Joseph is the National Director of Naandi Foundation’s Midday Meal Programme and has been associated with the programme since its inception in 2003)

It takes an average cost of Rs. 440 to feed a child per year.

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