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OP-ED: Feeding the children

  • Published at 12:27 am November 17th, 2020
Children_School_Meal Policy
Photo: Latif Hossain

Providing a free meal to students at schools will help mitigate hunger and malnutrition amongst the most vulnerable children

In 240 government and BRAC-run educational institutions for children in Trishal, Mymensingh, thousands of school students enjoyed attending classes as the authorities provided a free midday meal.

The cooked food ingredients include rice, lentils, and mixed vegetables -- in total 178 grams which costs Tk10.50. The school students’ nutritional intake of calories was 545 kcal and protein 11.46 gm. The hot cooked meal is culture-specific and nutrition-rich. Dietary diversity is ensured through a change in the recipe to maintain appetite.

The midday meal in rural and urban schools mitigates short-term hunger -- for most students, it was the only full meal.

A study by key civil servants in Bangladesh known as MATT (Managing at Top Team) showed that almost 60% of children go to school hungry. 

In the third year, the school attendance in urban areas in BRAC-operated midday meal projects increased from 55% (2011) to 81% (2013), and in rural areas, attendance increased from 64% (2011) to 92% (2013).

Basanta, chief of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in Bangladesh pushed the idea of a midday meal in schools with the Bangladesh government in 2011 after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political pledge in Vision 2021 articulated a strong priority on primary school education and nutrition to ensure food security.

However, the Covid-19 crisis has contributed to a child rights crisis. For children, the costs of the pandemic were immediate.

In Bangladesh, like most developing countries, accessibility and affordability of food and nutrition become challenging, while keeping staple food distribution and local food markets is an uphill task for the governments amidst a lack of accountability and weak transparency.

The brunt of the suffering when it comes to access to adequate nutrition with depleting income sources falls on the children, adolescents, and women.

According to the Primary Education Census (2011), there are 20 million primary school-age children, of which 18.4 million children are enrolled in primary schools.

Various studies show that quality education in primary school is hindered by a high dropout rate caused by hunger and malnutrition and widespread micronutrient deficiencies.

The provision of nutritious food improves the cognitive and physical development of children, remarks Basanta. An estimated 20.9% have sub-clinical Vitamin-A deficiency, 19.1% are anaemic, and 40% are iodine deficient.

To ensure the sustainability of the free-midday meal in schools in Trishal, local government representatives, school committees, and participation of mothers of the students have ensured accountability of free mid-day meals in schools.

Unfortunately, after the departure of Basanta, the fruitful negotiations with development partners and international multilateral donors have become weak.

The pioneering program initiated by GAIN with development partners BRAC and Banchte Shekha emerged as a “game changer.” Recently the government renewed commitment to replicate and scale up the school feeding model nation-wide in primary schools.

“It is critical to ensure food diversity and adequate nutrition, including key micronutrients and fortified staples,” Basanta said.

On Universal Children’s Day which is on November 20, the United Nations claims a definite impact has been found in investing in children. In response to the global nutrition crisis, school feeding programs can be adapted and scaled up to reach the most vulnerable children.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter @saleemsamad.

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