BANGALORE, India — It is just past noon and the lunch gong has sounded.
As he waits in line with other hungry children, a smile lurks on the face of 8-year-old Dinesh, a student at the Government Composite School in Agara, a village on the fringes of Bangalore.
When his turn comes, Dinesh holds out his plate for a steaming mound of rice and several ladlefuls of piping hot sambhar, spicy curry with lentils and vegetables. He eats quickly, savoring the curried rice and saving the tender chickpeas for the very end of the meal.
“I like coming to school,” says Dinesh simply, as he washes and puts away his empty plate.
Dinesh and 320 other impoverished children who mostly arrive at the school on an empty stomach are beneficiaries of India’s gargantuan government-sponsored free school lunch plan. The Midday Meal Scheme, the world’s largest such program, is designed to keep children in school and provide them better nutrition.
While celebrity chefs, politicians and nutritionists rue the poor nutrition at schools in the West, India’s free lunch program is an example of a rare success in state-run programs.
The lunch menu varies among states and regions of this vast country, adapting to the local cuisine and seasonal produce. In the northern parts of India, roti (flatbread of wheat or corn) are commonly served. In the south, rice is the staple of every free lunch.
As government schemes go, the midday meal program is a rare example of unqualified success. It benefitted 140 million school kids in government-run schools last year. Several studies say that the hot lunch scheme has improved enrollment in schools across India, increased attendance and raised nutrition levels among the kids.
“These children can now focus on their studies,” said Usha Sree, a teacher for the higher grades at the Agara school. Not only has enrollment and attendance risen — by 20 percent on average — but children are performing better since the free meal program started at the school, she said.
India has enjoyed a spectacular economic growth record in recent years. But a third of its population has not seen the inside of a school building and cannot read or write. According to the British medical journal Lancet, malnutrition is the bane of half of India’s children who are under 5 years old.
Schooling is free in India’s government-run schools. Yet, drawing children to school has been a challenge especially in rural India where families remain unconvinced about the value of education.
The Midday Meal program has served as an added incentive to poor families to keep their kids in school. Dinesh, for instance, would otherwise work in the fields or bring in a few extra rupees with menial jobs to supplement his father’s income.
India’s free school lunch program is funded with $2 billion in federal government funding, besides state governments as well as private sponsors. In some states such as Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, a thriving public-private partnership called Akshayapatra, named after the mythological miracle limitless pot, feeds 1.15 million school children in seven Indian states.
The free lunch program was introduced in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. As with many other government programs, the free lunch program was initially dismissed as a political gimmick. But the advantages are overwhelmingly obvious and it was quickly adopted by other states.
In 2001, India’s Supreme Court mandated that the program run in all government schools across India.
In India, most government programs are populist, based on election promises made by political parties. Many of them are corruption-ridden and barely a fraction of the money spent eventually benefits the people it is intended for. The Midday Meal program too has had its share of controversies.
In a country that ranks high on corruption lists, diversion of funds and food grains is a common complaint. In November in New Delhi more than 100 school kids were hospitalized for food poisoning following the midday meal.
The school lunch program has also proved a strong social equalizer. The school kitchens are, by government order, manned by those of the country’s untouchables or scheduled caste. Children from lower castes, whose parents were not even allowed to draw water from the village well, now sit side by side and share the same meal.
In Agara, children from all castes sit side by side, eating and laughing through their tasty lunches. “In areas where poor, rural families neglect the education of the girl child the program has bridged the gender divide,” said K.G. Gopal, headmaster of the Agara school.