New Delhi, Oct. 9: Children attend schools in larger numbers on days their midday meal menu includes eggs, a central study has found in Bengal and Telangana.
The findings of the 7th Joint Review Mission on the midday meal scheme have bolstered the case for the inclusion of eggs - a nutritious and difficult-to-adulterate option - in the programme across the states.
In July last year, the Union human resource development ministry had prodded all the states to emulate one another's "good practices", listing among them the serving of eggs in school midday meals.
However, some states have resisted the advice under pressure from vegetarian lobbies, although the proposal leaves room for vegetarian children being offered an alternative option, such as a fruit.
For instance, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh has nixed a proposal to introduce eggs at anganwadi centres (for pre-school children) in a few tribal pockets, saying it prefers milk and a banana instead.
Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh are among the states that have introduced eggs into their school midday meals.
In Bengal, where schools serve egg curry on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the mission's experts visited government schools in Calcutta and Hooghly district. Their report says the children told them the egg curry was their favourite.
"Students attended the schools in large numbers whenever egg was served," the report says.
Food activist Biraj Patnaik said all states should introduce eggs into their midday meal programme at schools (meant for Classes I to VIII) and Integrated Child Development Scheme at anganwadi centres.
"The common experience in all states that have introduced eggs is that the children are very happy," he said.
"Second, eggs are a rich source of protein and other nutrients. Third, they cannot be adulterated."
Sources in the Union human resource development ministry said that about 90 children in a rural school in Agra had fallen ill last week after drinking the milk served at their school. Initial investigations have suggested the milk was contaminated.
"Milk is prone to contamination; eggs are a better alternative," a senior official said.
The Joint Review Mission, conducted in March, also surveyed Maharashtra, where schools don't serve eggs, and Assam, where it focused not on the menu but on infrastructure and monitoring.
The survey highlighted several problems in Bengal and elsewhere:
- In Bengal, the dal is "highly diluted" at several schools.
- Children are served their meals in plates and bowls of various sizes --- the survey suggested uniform utensils to dispel any feelings of disparity or discrimination.
- The cooking is often outsourced to cluster kitchens run by local NGOs, from where the meals have to be transported to the various schools, posing a health and hygiene risk.
- Sometimes, this becomes necessary because the landlords of some of the 30 per cent of schools that operate from rented buildings do not allow cooking on the premises. The review mission suggested that schools get their own buildings and kitchens.
- In some schools, the children leave straightaway after the midday meal. In some, Class IX and X pupils wangle a share of the midday meal. The survey recommended better monitoring.
- Many of the posts of cook-cum-helpers in Bengal are vacant.
- There are delays in the procurement of food grains (by state or district authorities), payment to the Food Corporation of India (by the states), purchase of cooking ingredients (by the schools) and payment to the cooks and helpers (by the states).
The survey recommended a raise for the cooks and helpers, who are paid Rs 1,000 a month by the Centre and an additional sum by some states.
Over ten crore children are served midday meals in over 12 lakh schools across the country every day except holidays in government and aided schools.
The survey team included former Karnataka State Open University vice-chancellor K. Sudha Rao and former Uttar Pradesh director of education Krishna Mohan Tripathi.