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Govt plans to feed all primary school goers by 2023

  • Published at 05:47 pm August 19th, 2019
Students in a classroom at a primary school in Bandarban Dhaka Tribune

The cabinet has approved the draft of National School Meal Policy 2019, targeting to cover 30% of the nutritional needs of every primary school student

Around 14 million primary school students across Bangladesh will get midday meals by 2023 under the National School Meal Policy 2019, the draft of which was approved by the cabinet yesterday. 

The government is aiming to increase primary school attendance, and reduce the dropout rates in primary schools with the new meal policy. 

Under the government program, students aged between 3 and 12 years will be provided with food that will meet at least 30% of their daily calorie requirement, and 50% of daily micronutrient requirements.

The draft policy received the cabinet’s nod during its weekly meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, at the Prime Minister's Office in Dhaka yesterday, reported UNB.

Once the policy is fully implemented, by 2023, the government will provide each primary-level student across the country with one meal every school day.

The draft policy proposes to provide students with cooked meals five days a week, along with protein-rich biscuits once a week.

“The midday meal program will be initially introduced at schools in char, coastal, haor, and other backward areas of the country,” Cabinet Secretary Mohammad Shafiul Alam told reporters in a post-meeting briefing at the Secretariat.

He said the meal would contain at least four items out of the 10 selected food groups to ensure food diversity.

The government will form a national school meal authority under the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education to implement the school meal program, the cabinet secretary further added.

The government may also form a school meal advisory committee, comprising of eminent personalities of the society, to evaluate the program, and provide suggestions in this regard, he told reporters.

The current scenario

The government is currently providing 75-gram packages of biscuits to nearly three million children at 15,349 primary schools, situated in 104 upazilas across the country, under the current pilot project which is due to end in December 2020, at the expense of Tk474 crore. 

Students in primary schools in three upazilas – Bamna of Barguna, Islampur of Jamalpur, and Lama of Bandarban – receive cooked meals.

The government finances the school meal program in 93 upazilas, while the World Food Programme (WFP) sponsors the meals in the remaining upazilas, said Md Gias Uddin Ahmed, additional secretary at the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education. 

There are some 66,000 government primary schools at present across Bangladesh, with about 14 million students, UNB reports. 

Gias Uddin said some Tk2,835 crore is estimated to be the annual cost for providing biscuits to students at all primary schools, while Tk5,560.80 crore is the estimated budget for cooked meals for five days (Saturday-Wednesday), and biscuits on one day (Thursday) every week.

Around Tk7,475 crore will be required to provide biscuits, eggs, bananas, and bread to the students in every meal, he added.    

“We will exercise all modalities considering the school locations,” he further said.

How effective will be the new program?

Additional Secretary Md Gias Uddin Ahmed said they have found that the attendance rate increases, while the dropout rate declines significantly, when students get cooked meals in school.

Under the pilot project, students’ attendance has risen by 11% in schools where cooked meals are being served, and by 6% where biscuits are being served, he said.

Mohammad Kamruzzaman, upazila education officer at Islampur upazila in Jamalpur, said it was difficult for the students to focus on academic activities when they stay hungry at school, but when the school feeding program was introduced, they were not only able to focus on their lessons, but their attendance also improved significantly.

“School meals draw students into their classes. The attendance, and the physical growth of the children in schools under my jurisdiction is much better than the schools in other areas. It is helping us reduce dropout rates,” he told Dhaka Tribune.

The current feeding program covers one-fourth of the nutritional needs of every student as the meal sponsored by the WFP is made with locally-sourced fresh vegetables, lentils, and micronutrient-fortified rice and oil, the officer said, adding that egg is provided once a week.

Md Ruhul Amin Khan, joint secretary and the project director of School Feeding Program, told Dhaka Tribune that student attendance has risen to nearly 100% in many schools, while dropout rate has dropped to 5-13% where the school feeding program is in operation.

“Students who received the meals have experienced the changes physically, as they are now more energetic than others. The number of students with anaemia, and nutritional deficiencies has also gone down significantly,” he added.

The WFP in a statement in April noted that micronutrient deficiencies present a huge challenge to Bangladesh, with economic losses to malnutrition estimated at $1 billion per year.

“Nutritious meals for school children have a high return on investment, as they improve children’s health, and productivity throughout their life,” WFP Representative to Bangladesh Richard Ragan said in the statement.

Rasheda K Choudhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) and former education adviser to the caretaker government, also agreed that the school feeding program was effective in increasing student attendance in primary schools, as well as improve student retention.

“The dropout rates will decline further with the program, particularly in poverty-prone areas,” she told Dhaka Tribune. “Hungry children cannot learn.”

However, the school management must be adequately aware of the new meal policy, and follow it diligently, she said. 

“Locally produced ingredients must be used to prepare the food, and the nutrition chart must be followed,” she added. 

Asked how the whole process should be monitored, Rasheda said the parents of the students as well as the local communities should be involved. 

“Managing the program with transparency, and accountability will be a challenge,” she added. “It must also be ensured that local vested groups could not interfere with the program.” 

She further added that the government’s investment into the program must also be steady. 

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