Hunger is a social evil. It may not necessarily force someone to do something evil, but it will definitely not allow him to concentrate on the task at hand, and concentration, as we all know, is of immense importance when the task at hand is ‘learning’. So how do children cope with this evil? It will be naïve to think they do.
If a child skips his breakfast, he will not be able to concentrate on learning because of hunger, and as a result, his performance will go down. Now skipping the breakfast or any meal is one thing; not affording one is another. Children from poor families fall into the latter category. They can’t even afford a meal at times, leave alone a nutritious meal. How then, will they concentrate on educational activities?
Iodine deficiency alone can result in reduced cognitive functions; imagine the damage hunger can do to a child’s learning abilities.
It’s also important to understand that under-nutrition doesn’t just affect the child’s health but also jeopardizes his future. A poor diet in childhood results in below par performance in academics, which, in turn, results in fewer job opportunities. As a result, he is not able to achieve much professionally and his children are also subjected to a poor diet, starting the vicious cycle all over again.
In order to address hunger and problems related to it-in the education sector in particular, we need concrete solutions. The Government of India has identified the problem and implemented the Mid-day Meal Scheme (MDMS), a school lunch programme, to tackle it. That it is widely considered one of the best school feeding programmes in the world shouldn’t come as a surprise as it reaches out to over 120 million children.
As the mid-day meal programme intends to improve the nutritional status of children, strict nutritional guidelines have been laid with respect to its implementation. While students from class I to V are entitled to receive 450 calories and 12 gm protein from their meal, children from class VI to VIII are entitled to receive 700 calories and 20 gm protein.
School feeding programmes don’t just help in improving the nutritional health of children but also provide an incentive for them to come to school and more importantly, for the parents to send their children to school.
The mid-day lunch provided in schools is also important because at times, this is the only meal these children have throughout the day. The MDMS covers government and government-aided schools. Many children studying in these schools come from families who can’t afford a nutritious meal. For these children, the school lunch programme comes as a blessing in disguise.
Additionally, it helps in improving enrolment in schools and reducing the drop-out rate, as many people, who would otherwise force their children to leave school and work to support the family, allow them to continue studying. Even those who force their girl child to drop out of school and work in kitchen as they believe it will help them after marriage, are now allowing them to continue schooling.
Then there are the positive effects on attendance. It is highly unlikely that a healthy child will miss school because of illness. In contrast, a malnourished child is more likely to be absent on a regular basis because of some underlying health condition.
There is no dearth of independent studies supporting the fact that the MDMS has been successful in providing necessary nutrition to children, reducing drop-out rate, improved attendance, and more importantly, helped children excel in school. The need of the hour therefore, is to work on reaching every corner of the country to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry or misses out on education because of hunger.