8 days ago

Time to reintroduce midday meal at schools

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Iconic French military leader, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) emphasised the importance of logistics famously stating that his soldiers conquered vast tracts of Europe by "marching on their stomachs".  Napoleon knew only too well the importance of a full belly. Just as a well-fed army is essential for victory, so is proper nutrition vital for the development of  young learners' efficiency. If soldiers cannot perform their duty with an empty stomach, how can we possibly expect students to be anything different?

Many students in Bangladesh, especially in rural and poverty-stricken areas, attend classes with an empty stomach, which greatly impedes their ability to concentrate and learn effectively. It is time to take heed and put into practice the wisdom of Napoleon Bonaparte.

It has been reported that the government following a two-year hiatus, plans to reintroduce free midday meals in primary schools in 150 upazilas. This significant and commendable move is expected to provide nourishing food to young learners and help enhance school attendances and reduce school dropouts. This initiative, scheduled to kick-off in August, will embrace approximately 3.7 million students across 19,000 government primary schools mainly in poverty-stricken areas. Under the revamped scheme, the government will offer not only fortified biscuits, but also a variety of nutritious options such as seasonal fruits, bananas, eggs, and bread as a midday meal. This would perhaps be even more than what some students might get at home.

The Midday Meal Programme is not a novel concept in Bangladesh. From 2001 to 2009, the World Food Programme successfully implemented a school-feeding project. Then from 2010 to June 2022, the government provided fortified biscuits to nearly three million children in over 15,300 primary schools across 104 upazilas, with some areas also receiving hot meals. The programme, however, provoked a public outcry and severe criticism in 2020 when the project officials proposed going overseas to have training   on the preparation of Khichuri, a traditional local dish common to most Bangladeshi homes. The proposal was seen as an unnecessary foreign tour at the expense of the taxpayers. As a result,  an extension of the Midday Meal Programme was ultimately abandoned.

Now the re-introduction of the programme, perhaps, is going to be one of the most beneficial and humane acts the government has adopted for young school goers. A 2018 study by the World Food Programme revealed that midday meal programmes led to a 4.2 per cent increase in school enrolment and a 7.5 per cent reduction in dropouts. Given that the primary level dropout rate in Bangladesh stood at 13.95 per cent in 2022, down from 39.8 per cent in 2010, encouraging this downward trend is crucial.

In the National Education Policy of 2010, the government incorporated implementation of a midday meal at schools. If implemented in a substantive and meaningful way, the MMP can yield a myriad of benefits. It can help remedy the problem of malnutrition, increase school enrolment, prevent dropouts, stop students from playing truant, contribute towards balancing the meagre family budget, and provide essential nutrients to needy members of the community.

A midday meal program at school isn't just about providing free food. It can have a number of less obvious but beneficial effects. For example, it can make schools more attractive to students from lower-income families and help reduce child labour, as some children sadly take on difficult jobs just to earn a daily meal. For all these reasons, implementing a comprehensive midday meal programme in schools, especially for underprivileged children, can be a major step towards greater success in a country's education system.

In 2018, when the midday meal programme was implemented on a limited scale, this scribe interviewed an Upazila Education Officer to understand its impact. It was learned that following the introduction of the midday meal scheme, the attendance rate, especially after lunch break, substantially increased. Children enjoyed their midday meals together in a festive and disciplined manner. After eating, they washed their plates and tiffin boxes, indicating a heightened sense of respect and responsibility. Previously, many students hesitated to bring tiffin, often ate unhealthy junk food during the lunch break or stayed hungry, while some went home for lunch and did not return to school. However, with the midday meal programme, these issues improved significantly. With their hunger satisfied, students could give full attention to their classes, and teachers felt more encouraged to teach due to higher attendance rates and enthusiastic participation. Overall, awareness of health, hygiene, and nutrition has increased, which will, in the long run, reduce the risk of malnutrition-related diseases among students.

As Bangladesh aims to ensure that all children receive at least 30 per cent of their daily-required calorie intake by 2030, the mid-day meal programme will play a pivotal role in achieving this goal. By addressing hunger and malnutrition, the programme will help students focus better, learn more effectively, appreciate more the school system, and stay at school longer.

The reintroduction of midday meals in primary schools will be a highly commendable move and those responsible for this initiative deserves praise. Not only does it help improve education and reduce poverty in Bangladesh, but it is also a clear visible investment in the nation's future, ensuring that children, regardless of their socio-economic background, have the opportunity to succeed academically and lead healthier lives. No child deserves to go to school hungry.


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