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Poor Monitoring of Mid Day Meals

The mid day meal scheme in Goa still suffers from a number of infirmities. The self-help groups (SHGs) supplying food to schools are refusing to join the scheme to cook food in centralized kitchens. The central government provides special assistance to schools for the purpose. The SHGs cook food in homes or places where no safety standards are followed. More than once, worms and lizards have been found in mid-day meals. The central or state government has not yet made cooking in centralized kitchens compulsory, though that seems to be the ideal solution. The state education department has decided to strike a balance: they are going to provide insulated containers to the SHGs for food prepared at their premises to be brought to schools hot.
This might be a temporary solution; the education department must not give up working toward getting the SHGs to centralized kitchens. The SHGs say it is not practical for them to do cooking in centralized kitchens. One of their pet excuses is that the persons they engage in cooking might not be willing to travel longer distances for cooking in a centralized kitchen. What kind of SHGs are they? Are they only to help self as their name connotes? Do they have no responsibility for the hygiene and the health of children? Why are they engaging themselves in cooking mid-day meals – only to make some profit out of it? Do they have no scruples? The education department’s offer to provide the SHGs hot containers is sheer surrender to the inflexible self-interest of the SHGs and against the interests of schoolchildren.
Midday meal is a food and nutritional security scheme which is intended to draw children, including girl children, from families that would not send them to school for economic and social reasons. The aim of the scheme is to “enhance enrolment, retention and attendance and simultaneously improve nutritional levels among children.” The scheme is successful as it has led to increased enrolment, increased attendance, improved performance of students in class in terms of better attention span and academic progress and improved nutritional status of students. The scheme has reduced the protein, calorie and iron deficiencies of primary school students. However, even though we are a small state, the scheme lacks ground-level information, coordination and monitoring. Monitoring is the large shadow area which gives the SHGs and school managements plenty of room to avoid and shift responsibility. Preparation and supply of unsafe food result from poor monitoring and coordination. The saddest part is that when incidents of unsafe food being served as mid day meal cause sickness among children, a probe is ordered and then things are forgotten. Outrage does not lead to transformation in the preparation or delivery of mid day meal.
With the onset of rains, chances of children being provided unsafe food are going to increase. The state education department has sent out an alert for the months July to September during which possibilities of contamination of food grains and other raw materials and poor sanitization of kitchen premises and utensils are quite high. The department has asked the SHGs to maintain cleanliness and hygiene in the place of cooking. However, as there is poor monitoring there is very little guarantee that the SHGs would observe safety standards during the monsoons if they have not done in the rest of the year. The contracts signed by the SHGs with the government do have penal provisions for cooking and supplying unsafe food, but these clauses have not been known to pose any deterrence to the contractors most of whom are in the business not for service or idealism but for making a little money in which big players are unlikely to dominate or swallow them.
The SHGs must be brought to centralized kitchens where sanitation and hygiene can be maintained, where the food grains and cooking oil and other raw materials have to pass through examination for safety standards before being used for cooking the mid day meals, and where the utensils and containers can be constantly sanitized and where the men and women engaged in cooking would maintain personal hygiene themselves. The state education department must take up the setting up of centralized kitchens as a challenge. It can make Goa a model state in that regard. The reasons advanced by the SHGs not to come to centralized kitchens are mainly two: One, the workers hired by them for cooking would not be willing to travel far to a centralized kitchen; and two, the SHG would have to meet transport costs. The education department can meet the issues by selecting SHGs that are willing to cook in centralized kitchens and by paying them more to meet the higher costs.

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