The Mid-day meal scheme started in 1995, is one of the largest anti-poverty programs to have ever run. A simple concept, children were incentivized to attend school on the pretext of receiving one free and wholesome meal a day. While the scheme did face many challenges since its launch, it has fed close to 120 million of the poorest children in India while simultaneously upping enrollment rates. It also reduced the disease burden by improving protein consumption, addressing the calories deficit, and improving iron deficiency. Indirectly, it enabled families to curb their expenditure on food, thereby providing them with somewhat of a breathable monetary margin. However, India’s malnourishment problem continues to persist. In 2019, UNICEF reported that hidden malnourishment was a huge problem in India. This meant that many suffered from a deficiency in minerals and vitamins – such as iron, folate, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the country went into lockdown, with schools shutting down and people being restricted to their homes. Through our work on the field, we realized the detrimental effect the pandemic and lockdown were having in rural communities. Food insecurity was a major issue, with most families wondering where their next meal was coming from or resorting to filling their stomach with one sparse meal a day. Access to food through the Public Distribution System (PDS) provided slight aid, whole proving time and again to be insufficient for large, rural Indian families as 30% of the households were found to be struggling with a phenomenon we call ‘lockdown hunger’. According to a study conducted by the ‘New Scientist’, due to disruption in the mid-day meal scheme, 115 million children, who were dependent on the mid-day meal scheme, are now at the risk of malnourishment due to COVID-19 and the extended school closure. The United Nations has estimated that COVID-19 is pushing vulnerable communities over the edge, killing an estimated 10,000 more children as meagre farms are cut off from markets and villages are isolated from food and medical aid.
India’s malnourishment problems have been attributed to poor access and affordability of nutritional food, along with inadequate access to maternal and child-care and health services. As the economy slowly sputters to a start again, it will be a while before migrant workers, especially in the unorganized sector, have viable economic opportunities, the lack of which adversely affects the children’s nutrition, education, and psychological wellness. While protecting children from the pandemic is necessary, proper care needs to continue for the most marginalized so that they can continue to participate in educational opportunities in the future. Undernourishment and ill-health affect a child’s ability to learn optimally and thus affect their future. Collective efforts across governments, organizations and communities need to be made to ensure that due diligence will be shown towards. We need to look towards creating a holistic solution which addresses the nutrition and health (including mental health) of children through healthy meals and the introduction of well-trained social workers, counsellors, and community involvement into the schooling system.
This approach needs to be further fortified by creating sustainable solutions such as alternative sources of income to rebuild a child’s family. While ChildFund India has responded to the immediate needs by distributing food and hygiene kits to the marginalized families affected by COVID-19, it has started to take steps in that direction by encouraging small farmers and migrant labourers out of work to take up farming by providing seeds, organic manure and assistance in setting up nutrition gardens, taking up poultry farming, creating an alternative, sustainable source of income to ensure that the children enjoy nutritional and food security in the long run.
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