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Sense and SolidarityJholawala Economics for Everyone$

Jean Drèze

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198833468

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198833468.001.0001

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School Meals

School Meals

(p.69) 3 School Meals
Sense and Solidarity

Jean Drèze

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter makes the case for free midday meals in Indian schools. School meals have wide‐ranging social benefits. First, they help to ensure regular school attendance. Second, they contribute to better child nutrition. Third, midday meals help to impart egalitarian values among children, who learn to sit together and share a meal irrespective of caste and class. Fourth, India's school meal programme is a major source of employment for poor rural women, and also helps other women to join the workforce by liberating them from the burden of having to prepare lunch for their children. All this, of course, depends on midday meals meeting adequate quality standards. In that respect, one recent breakthrough in many Indian states is the inclusion of eggs in school meals. Alas, this is being resisted in some states under the influence of upper‐caste vegetarian lobbies.

Keywords:   Child nutrition, School meals, Caste discrimination, School attendance, Elementary education, Right to food, Women's employment

THE SIGHT OF SCHOOLCHILDREN enjoying their midday meal is one of the brighter moments Indian villages have to offer today. In well-organised schools, especially, it is a pleasure to see children washing their hands, queuing for their food, reciting something in a chorus before they start to eat, relishing the meal, and milling around a hand-pump to clean their plates. The experience tends to get better every year as more and more schools learn to make good use of the midday meal routine.

One of the first supreme court orders in the “right to food case”, mentioned earlier, directed state governments to introduce cooked midday meals in all government and government-assisted primary schools. This order, dated 28 November 2001, actually did nothing more than direct governments to do what they were already supposed to under the National Programme of Nutritional Support for Primary Education (NPNSPE), launched by the central government in 1995. The NPNSPE aimed to provide cooked meals in primary schools, but instead, dry rations (monthly quotas of wheat or rice) had been distributed to schoolchildren until then, and even those were conditional on regular attendance. The court order led the government to do what it intended to do – it was a sort of “nudge”, as economists call it.

In due course, midday meals came to be seen as one of India’s most effective social programmes (a substantial body of research brings out (p.70) their positive impact on school attendance, child nutrition, and pupil achievements). The early years, however, were arduous. Schools had no kitchen sheds, children had no plates, hygiene was lacking, and the meals were frugal. Media reports on midday meals in those days (and to some extent even today) tended to show a negative slant. Newspaper and television channels took interest mainly when there was an incident of food poisoning or caste discrimination. This is understandable – it is part of the whistle-blowing role of the media. In the process, however, the quiet progress and growing accomplishments of midday meals failed to get due credit. The first three essays in this section are part of a stream of articles (by various authors) that tried to convey a more balanced picture of the achievements and failures of midday meals at that time.

The last essay fast-forwards to 2015. By then, midday meals were doing relatively well in most states, yet much scope remained for quality improvement. In that respect, one recent breakthrough is the provision of eggs in school meals in many states – up to five times a week in Tamil Nadu. However, some states (including most of the states with a BJP government) are resisting the move under the influence of upper-caste vegetarian lobbies. The resistance was taken to a new plane in May 2015, when the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, vetoed the proposed provision of eggs to young children under ICDS, in three tribal districts, on a pilot basis. Soon enough, there was egg on his own face as the Indian media largely rallied on the side of undernourished children. Evidence also emerged, from a right to information (RTI) application, that the same chief minister had hosted a banquet for Japanese industrialists a few months earlier in Tokyo where meat was served with abandon.

Speaking of Japan, I recently watched a bunch of videos about school meals in that country (available on YouTube) and was bowled over by the way in which the midday meal was creatively used as an opportunity to educate children about nutrition, hygiene, mutual co-operation, environmental responsibility, and more. And, of course, the food (sometimes grown on the school grounds by teachers and (p.71) children, who also eat together) looked really yummy and nutritious. This made me realise that there is still enormous scope for enhancing the nutritional, educational, and social value of school meals in India. There is every reason to look forward to this great enterprise of public service.

(p.72) Hunger in the Classroom* (with Vivek S.)

Ten months have passed since the supreme court directed the state governments to introduce cooked midday meals in all primary schools within six months. Some state governments are implementing the order, but many others are trying to buy time, pleading for central government funding, or even trying to get the order reversed. The supreme court seems determined to enforce the order, but public pressure also has an important role to play in overcoming these hesitations.

In states that have started providing midday meals, various implementation problems have arisen. There have been occasional reports of food poisoning, notably in Pondicherry where hundreds of children recently fell ill after consuming the midday milk. Teachers often complain that midday meals encroach on their time or disrupt classroom processes. And in some states, high-caste parents have objected to the idea of an all-caste lunch, or to the midday meal being prepared by a Dalit cook.

It is, however, important to avoid a loss of nerve in the face of these teething problems. Consider for instance the issue of food poisoning. Occasional incidents of indigestion at school carry little weight against the enormous health gains (present and future) that may be expected from higher school attendance and reduced hunger in the classroom. According to recent investigations by the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) in Delhi, even in the national capital (p.73) a large proportion of children from poor families go to school with an empty stomach. Better-fed and better-educated children are the key to the future health of the nation.

Similarly, the much-cited problem of encroachment on teacher time is far from insurmountable. The more enterprising states have already appointed helpers to serve the midday meal. In some circumstances, the provision of pre-cooked food can help avoid the disruption of classroom processes. Further, it is important to remember that one of the biggest disruptions of classroom processes in Indian schools arises from the absence of a midday meal: children go home for lunch and many do not return.

As far as caste conflicts are concerned, they have a positive counterpart: midday meals challenge traditional caste prejudice and teach children to eat together irrespective of caste. In Karnataka, most cooks are Dalit women, and there appears to be wide acceptance of this arrangement. In Rajasthan, perhaps a more conservative society as far as caste is concerned, significant incidents have occurred, for instance in the form of Rajput parents objecting to the midday meal being cooked by a Dalit woman. But even in Rajasthan, the midday meal programme is on track and there is a good chance that high-caste resistance will melt over time.

This is not to dismiss the problems that have arisen. But these problems are best seen as a useful reminder of the urgency of higher quality standards in midday meal schemes (including adequate infrastructure and hygiene) rather than as an indictment of the entire project. Further, it is important to note that many positive achievements have already emerged from the new midday meal programmes, even though these achievements tend to be less widely publicised than gory tales of food poisoning or caste conflict. In particular, there is growing evidence that school meals have boosted school attendance in many areas. To illustrate, a recent survey of twenty-six villages in Sikar district (Rajasthan) found that school enrolment was much higher than last year in all the schools, and had risen by more than 25 per cent on average. In some “alternative schools” located in (p.74) deprived hamlets, enrolment nearly doubled after the introduction of midday meals.

One of us recently participated in informal investigations of midday meals in Karnataka, where the programme has been introduced in seven districts on a pilot basis. The overall picture was very encouraging. In most of the eight schools sampled, adequate logistical arrangements (including provision for water) had been made and midday meals were served regularly. No incidents of food poisoning had occurred. Most of the cooks were Dalit women and no objections had been raised, except in one village where high-caste children abstained from the midday meal. By all accounts, school enrolment had increased, and daily attendance was more regular.

There is, in short, little reason for delaying the extension of midday meal programmes to other states. The main stumbling block, here as in many other contexts, is the reluctance of state governments to bear the overhead costs. While grain for the midday meal programme is provided free of cost by the central government, the states are expected to pay for the other ingredients, and also for transport and cooking arrangements. These overhead costs vary, depending on the arrangements being made, but, taking Karnataka’s relatively successful model as a benchmark, it appears that a sound midday meal programme calls for a financial allocation of about one rupee per child per day.

Most state governments are reluctant to bear this financial burden, arguing that their coffers are empty. But if the public capitulates to such arguments, the social sectors will never get their due. Ultimately, it is a question of priorities. Indeed, the same state governments that complain of financial bankruptcy often manage to find hundreds of crores of rupees overnight when powerful interests are involved.

To illustrate: a high-level official from the education department in Uttar Pradesh recently mentioned at a workshop in Lucknow that a midday meal programme would cost Rs 680 crores per year, and that the state government was at a loss to find such resources. Yet a few days later, the MLAs of Uttar Pradesh passed a motion raising (p.75) their own salaries and perks at a potential cost of Rs 425 crores per year for the state exchequer. Commenting on this, a ruling-party MLA complained that existing allowances were “not even sufficient to foot our monthly tea bills” (Times of India, 4 September). The full significance of this comment probably escaped most readers, unless they noticed another news item published the same day in the Hindustan Times, according to which the ministers of the Mayawati government had consumed Rs 6.71 lakhs worth of “tea and snacks” since May. Such is the state of democracy in Uttar Pradesh that political leaders are allowed to gorge themselves at public expense while children go to school on empty stomachs.

On 28 November 2001, when some state governments argued in the supreme court that midday meals were unaffordable, the bench sternly told them to “cut the flab somewhere else”. The advice has not lost its relevance. Besides, there is always the possibility of raising taxes to generate additional revenue. Indeed, taxation rates in India are quite low by international standards. And as pointed out by Dr John Kurian of the Planning Commission, in many states even a moderate surcharge on liquor taxes would be quite enough to fund a midday meal programme. There is no excuse for allowing the continuation of hunger in the classroom.

(p.76) Food for Equality*

As millions of children flock back to school after the summer vacation, it is worth examining what midday meals have achieved so far and how they can be improved. Tamil Nadu’s experience suggests that well-devised school meals have much to contribute to the advancement of elementary education, child nutrition, and social equity. However, these achievements depend a great deal on the quality aspects of midday meals. Ramshackle midday meal programmes can do more harm than good.

Beyond Ghoogri

To illustrate, consider the primary school in Bamhu (Bilaspur district, Chhattisgarh). The midday meal there is prepared in a sooty classroom using a makeshift stove, next to the swarming pupils. The cook struggles with inadequate utensils and takes the help of young children to cut vegetables and clean the rice. After lunch, the classroom turns filthy. The teacher wishes midday meals were discontinued.

Bamhu is a good example of the sort of horror stories that often catch the attention of the media. However, it is important to go beyond these selective anecdotes and form a clearer view of the larger picture. Early hints of it are available from a recent survey initiated by the Centre for Equity Studies (CES), New Delhi. The survey took place in three regions where the scheme is supposed to be in place: Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and north Karnataka. In each region, the survey covered twenty-seven randomly selected schools spread over (p.77) three districts. The findings suggest that, on the whole, midday meals have made a promising start. The scheme is certainly popular: 91 per cent of the parents sampled wanted it to continue (rising to 96 per cent among scheduled caste and scheduled tribe parents). However, the survey also shows that quality issues need urgent attention if the programme is to realise its full potential.

On the positive side, midday meals were being served regularly in seventy-six of the eighty-one sample schools. Their most impressive achievement so far is to enhance school enrolment and attendance, especially among girls. In the schools sampled, the enrolment of girls in Class 1 rose by 19 per cent after the introduction of midday meals. In Rajasthan, where baseline levels of female school participation were lowest, the corresponding figure is 29 per cent. There is also much informal evidence that daily pupil attendance has improved after the introduction of midday meals. For instance, many parents report that it has become much easier to send their children to school in the morning, as they look forward to eating with other children at noon. Similarly, teachers report that afternoon attendance has improved. Earlier, children went home for lunch, with many not returning.

Another achievement of midday meals is the elimination of classroom hunger. A large proportion of Indian children start the school day on an empty stomach. Without a midday meal, they grow hungry after a while and lose interest in studying, or go home. Where midday meals are in place, this problem has been largely resolved. In areas of endemic hunger, such as in the tribal areas of southern Rajasthan, the school meal also makes an important contribution to food security in general by ensuring that children get at least one square meal a day.

Having said this, the quality of midday meals leaves much to be desired because of the low budget allocations, especially in Rajasthan, where the government spends as little as 50 paise per child per day on recurring costs (compared with one rupee per day or so in Chhattisgarh and Karnataka). Because of inadequate resources, basic facilities are sorely lacking. For instance, very few schools in Rajasthan have a cooking shed. As a result, the cooking process often disrupts (p.78) teaching activities and hygiene levels are inadequate. Lack of money is also the main reason why most schools in Rajasthan continue to serve ghoogri (sweetened boiled wheat) day after day, instead of varying the menu. An important opportunity has been missed here to enhance children’s health by ensuring that they get nutritious food at school.

Caste, Class, and Gender

Recent media reports of upper-caste opposition to school meals in some areas highlight the “socialisation” role of midday meals. Restrictions on the sharing of food play an important role in the perpetuation of caste inequalities. Teaching children to sit and eat together at school, irrespective of caste, is a good way of defying traditional prejudices.

Of course, it is also possible for midday meals to be a tool of the reinforcement rather than the erosion of prevailing social inequalities. In Rajasthan, for example, we came across one village (Joz in Rajsamand district) where Dalit children were asked to drink from separate pitchers. This is a despicable instance of caste discrimination in the classroom which defeats the socialisation role of midday meals.

How common is caste discrimination in the context of midday meals? The CES survey sheds some useful light on this issue. The findings suggest that open discrimination is rare. For instance, we did not find any case of segregated sitting arrangements in the eighty-one schools sampled, or of preferential treatment being given to uppercaste children. Pupils of all social backgrounds seem to be quite happy to sit together and eat the same food. Parents and teachers both claim to welcome the arrangement in most cases, and very few parents among disadvantaged castes felt that their children had ever experienced caste discrimination in the context of the midday meal.

These responses, however, do not rule out subtle forms of caste prejudice and social discrimination. While open objections to the midday meal on caste grounds were rare, upper-caste parents were (p.79) often sceptical of the scheme, and in a few cases actively opposed it. Some upper-caste parents send their children to school with packed food, or ask them to come home for lunch. Whether this is a manifestation of caste prejudice (as opposed to class privilege) is not always clear, but caste is likely to play a part in many cases.

Further, there does seem to be much upper-caste resistance to the appointment of Dalit cooks. In north Karnataka, half of the cooks in the sample were Dalits, and this arrangement seems to have gained fairly wide acceptance. In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, however, Dalit cooks were largely confined to schools with no upper-caste children. We also noted instances of active parental resistance to the appointment of Dalit cooks. In Kolu Pabuji, a village of Jodhpur district, a Rajput parent had thrown sand in the midday meal after discovering the cook was a Meghwal woman. She was promptly replaced by a woman from another caste.

These findings do not detract from the general socialisation value of midday meals. In a sense, they even enhance it: if upper-caste parents initially resist midday meals, there is much value in overcoming that reluctance. There are strong indications that the caste barriers are far from immutable.

The contribution of midday meals to social equality is not confined to the erosion of caste prejudices. They also promote gender equity in several ways. To start with, midday meals dramatically reduce the gender gap in school participation. The reason is that they boost female enrolment much more than male enrolment. One recent study estimates that the provision of a midday meal in the local school is associated with a 50 per cent reduction in the proportion of girls who are out of school. The CES survey also finds clear evidence of a surge in female school participation after midday meals were introduced, particularly in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

Midday meals also create employment opportunities for poor women, especially when, as in Karnataka, the programme guidelines specify that all cooks should be women. In Tamil Nadu, each primary school has three paid staff: a cook, a helper, and an “organiser”. Most (p.80) of them are women, and this has become an important source of female employment in rural areas.

Further, midday meals contribute to the liberation of working women by freeing them from the burden of having to feed their school-going children at noon. As Sudan Mati, a 35-year-old tribal woman from Bilaspur district (Chhattisgarh), puts it: “Since our child has started getting food at school, we don’t need to worry about him going hungry, and I don’t need to come back after half a day’s work to prepare his lunch.” This feature is especially helpful to widowed mothers, who often work outside their homes without the benefit of domestic support.

Midday meals also help to reduce class inequalities. Indeed, children enrolled in government schools today come mainly from disadvantaged families. Thus, midday meals can be seen as a form of economic support to the poor. More importantly, perhaps, midday meals facilitate school-going among underprivileged children. This is likely to reduce future class inequalities, since the lack of an education is a major source of economic disadvantage and social marginalisation.

In their innocent garb, midday meals deal a healthy blow to the prevailing inequalities of caste, class, and gender. This is one reason, among others, why midday meals deserve more attention from individuals and organisations committed to social equity.

(p.81) Midday Meals and the Joy of Learning*

Feeding is everywhere perceived as an expression of love. The giving and sharing of food can do more to foster friendship and affection than the most eloquent religious sermons. This is well conveyed in the film Babette’s Feast, where members of a village community who despise each other in spite of going to church every Sunday become friends as they eat and drink together at a wild banquet.

One argument for the provision of cooked midday meals in primary schools is that they make the school environment less hostile for the child. For Indian children, the school is often stifling and unfriendly. Verbal humiliation and physical brutality are common, and children rarely enjoy gestures of appreciation or encouragement from their teachers. In this situation, midday meals can help make children feel at ease in school.

We have already noted the many ways in which midday meals can serve useful purposes, such as boosting school attendance, reducing the gender gap in education, protecting children from classroom hunger, fostering a sense of social equality, generating employment for poor women, and imparting nutrition education to schoolchildren. All these, of course, depend on ensuring that midday meal schemes meet adequate quality standards.

There has been a wave of interesting studies on midday meals during the last few years. Field surveys have been conducted in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, (p.82) Rajasthan, and West Bengal, among other states. A number of useful insights have emerged.

First, midday meals are in place in most primary schools. Some states took several years to implement the supreme court order of 28 November 2001, which, we may recall, directed them to provide cooked midday meals in all primary schools within six months. But ultimately they all fell in line, and the coverage of midday meal schemes is now close to universal. Field studies indicate that the provision of midday meals is fairly regular in most states.

Second, midday meals are popular. Parents and teachers generally want the scheme to continue. There are, as noted, substantial pockets of opposition among upper-caste parents to their children being made to eat with Dalit children, or eating food cooked by a Dalit. And some teachers complain that midday meals disrupt classroom activities. This opposition typically wears out if the scheme is well implemented: over time, midday meals get smoothly integrated in the school routine, and upper-caste parents resign themselves to the fact that “times have changed”. In some states, however, haphazard implementation has strengthened the opposition lobby and a backlash against midday meals cannot be ruled out.

Third, children are generally happy to get a midday meal at school. This is not so much because they are hungry, or because the food is better than what they get at home, but because they enjoy sharing a meal with their friends. Many states have started enhancing the variety and nutritional value of midday meals, and this tends to make them even more popular among children. According to a recent study of midday meals in Delhi: “Many [children] were observed enjoying every last grain on their plates, licking their fingers in delight. Rare was the child who did not take the food, and rarer still the school where the meal was not the highlight of the day.”

Fourth, midday meals seem to be quite effective in promoting regular school attendance. This is one of the most common findings of recent studies on midday meals. Sometimes the reported effects on school attendance are really impressive. A recent study co-ordinated by the Samaj Pragati Sahyog in Madhya Pradesh found that school (p.83) enrolment in Class 1 had shot up by 36 per cent within a year after cooked midday meals were introduced. A similar jump in school enrolment among scheduled caste and scheduled tribe children is reported for Jharkhand in a recent report prepared by the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan. These particular figures may be on the high side, due to small samples or reporting biases, but what is not in doubt is that midday meals have major effects on school attendance, especially among girls and disadvantaged families. In this respect, quantitative data corroborate wide-ranging testimonies from teachers, parents, and other observers.

Fifth, midday meals help to break caste barriers and foster a sense of social equality among school-children. This is very important, because the early years of primary school correspond to a vital period in children’s lives, when their perceptions of social identity take shape. It is around this age, for instance, that children develop a consciousness of their caste and its place in the social hierarchy. The experience of unsegregated dining can help impart a sense of social equality at this crucial stage. The fact that upper-caste parents often resist this experiment confirms that it does challenge prevailing social norms in an important way.

Sixth, the socialisation value of midday meals is defeated when midday meals themselves become a site of social discrimination. A recent incident in Bhokludih village of Mahasamund district (Chhattisgarh) illustrates the problem, as well as how it can be turned into an opportunity to challenge caste discrimination. In Bhokludih, some Dalit children complained that they were given less food than others, made to sit separately, and prevented from entering the kitchen on the grounds that they were “Chamras”. When a local teacher (Kamala Chauhan) took up their cause, she was transferred. On a more positive note, the incident received wide publicity and helped raise public awareness of the need to deal sternly with such incidents of caste discrimination.

Seventh, there is some interesting evidence on the value of midday meals as nutrition supplement. While midday meals certainly help to protect children from classroom hunger, they may or may not lead to (p.84) a sustained improvement in their nutritional status. In fact, a poor midday meal (say rice and salt) can even be counterproductive, if it kills the appetite and reduces the child’s intake of more nutritious home food. In this connection, it is interesting to note that, according to a recent study by Farzana Afridi, the improved midday meal scheme in Madhya Pradesh “reduces the daily calorie deficiency of the average primary schoolgoing child in the survey region by almost 35%, the daily iron deficiency by 25% and meets almost their entire daily protein deficiency.” Having said this, there is a long way to go in making full use of midday meals as an opportunity to improve child nutrition. Some states have started enhancing the nutritional value of midday meals (e.g. by providing eggs and fruit), or combining them with micronutrient supplements (e.g. iron and Vitamin A), but the typical school meal is still quite frugal in most cases.

Finally, almost all recent studies of midday meals point to serious quality problems. Basic facilities such as cooking sheds and drinking water are often lacking, with the result that midday meals often interfere with classroom activities. Poor hygiene makes children vulnerable to stomach aches, if not food poisoning. Monotonous menus undermine the nutritional value of midday meals. And social discrimination persists. These problems need to be urgently addressed if midday meals are to realise their full potential.

Supreme court orders on midday meals can be seen as an instructive example of the possibility of constructive judicial intervention to protect children’s right to food. However, court orders are little more than a temporary solution. Ultimately, nutritious midday meals need to be recognised as an integral part of a healthy school environment, just like a blackboard or textbook. And this recognition needs to be reflected in permanent legal entitlements as well as in political priorities and financial allocations.

(p.85) Caste, Class, and Eggs*

Many Indian states have started providing eggs with midday meals, either in schools or in anganwadis or both. This is the best thing that has happened for a long time in the field of social policy.

Indian children are among the most undernourished in the world. They are starved of protein, vitamins, iron, and other essential nutrients. Eating eggs regularly could help them grow, thrive, and think. Indeed, eggs are a kind of super-food for growing children. They contain all the essential nutrients (except Vitamin C).

There are other arguments for including eggs in midday meals. First, most children (especially those from poor families) love eggs. Serving eggs with the midday meal helps boost school attendance and create a child-friendly environment. Second, eggs could give a new lease of life to the Integrated Child Development Services, still a fledgling programme in many states. Third, poultry is a useful source of local employment for rural households and women’s self-help groups.

Eggs first appeared in school meals in states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Today, Tamil Nadu provides eggs five times a week in schools and three times a week in anganwadis. But other states are catching up fast. Odisha, for instance, serves eggs three times a week in anganwadis and twice a week in schools. Among other major states, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal have recently joined the egg club. Even the poorest states, evidently, can afford it. (The accompanying map shows the state-wise number of eggs being served every week in schools and anganwadis, as this book goes to print.)

School Meals

Map: Number of Eggs Served Each Week to Children in Schools and Anganwadis.

Credit: Swati Narayan.

(p.86) The experience so far is overwhelmingly positive. Eggs are extremely popular among children, and quite safe – I am not aware of any incident of food poisoning. Nor is there much by way of complaint from upper-caste parents: wherever eggs are part of the midday meal menu, there is also a vegetarian option (e.g. a banana). In the light of this experience, there is every reason to go for eggs across the country.

(p.87) Why, then, are egg proposals being repeatedly shot down in a few states, notably Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, and Rajasthan? In each case, the story is the same: the state government was held hostage to a tiny vegetarian (more precisely, semivegan) lobby. As a vegetarian myself, I am dismayed by the attitude of my fellow vegetarians. Surely, vegetarianism is about abstaining from certain food products, not about enforcing the abstention on others.

The egg resisters have been at a loss to come up with a rational argument to defend their position. Leaving aside the more eccentric claims (e.g. elephants prove that there is strength in vegetarianism), their main contention is that there are alternatives, such as milk or bananas. But bananas do not come close to eggs in nutritional value, and milk raises serious safety issues. Being a perishable food, it is also difficult to distribute efficiently. Further, as Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, milk is no more vegetarian than eggs in any rational sense. In any case, why look for alternatives when the humble egg is an effective, safe, well-tested, affordable, and popular option?

Ultimately, the resistance to eggs has to do with caste and class. Restrictions on the choice and sharing of food play a crucial role in the caste system. The self-appointed guardians of these restrictions typically come from the privileged castes, who have a stake in that system. Often they also come from the privileged classes, who can afford nutritious food for their children without having to rely on school meals. Their dogged insistence on having their way is essentially an upper-caste affirmation that “what we say goes”.

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s recent veto against eggs in Madhya Pradesh contrasts with the quiet manner in which eggs were introduced in Bihar about a year ago. When Jiten Ram Manjhi, then chief minister of Bihar, heard of the idea of serving eggs in anganwadis, he supported it immediately. Coming from a poor Musahar family, and having known hunger in his childhood, he understood what it would mean for poor children to get an egg at school. He himself explained how he knew many Musahar children who had never (p.88) eaten an egg. Within a few weeks, the Government of Bihar started implementing the proposal.

Interestingly, there have been no reports of vocal opposition from upper-caste parents in Bihar, or in any other states where eggs were introduced recently. At countless public functions, there are vegetarian and non-vegetarian queues for food, and I have never seen vegetarians run away in disgust – why would the same arrangement be a problem in schools? Contrary to their claims, the anti-egg militants are not voicing the sentiment of a large constituency but acting as an authoritarian minority.

Finally, I sympathise with animal rights activists who are batting for brutalised farm animals. I have seen how pigs are treated in industrial farms, and that is why I gave up meat and fish (not eggs!). But scuttling poor children’s right to nutritious food is not the best way to champion the cause of farm animals.


There is, by now, a large body of research on India’s midday meal scheme. Some of the early studies are cited in this section, but there are many more, consolidating the initial evidence of the scheme’s positive impact on school attendance and child nutrition; see e.g. Khera 2006, 2013, Drèze and Khera 2009, 2017, Drèze and Sen 2013, and the studies cited there.

Hunger in the Classroom

The reference to an investigation of hunger among schoolchildren in Delhi is based on a personal communication from Dr Janaki Rajan, then director of the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT). The Sikar survey was conducted by local NGOs and presented at a meeting of the Akal Sangharsh Samiti in September 2002.

The essay mentions that most cooks in Karnataka were Dalit women at that time. On 20 April 2004, the supreme court issued an order stating that “in appointments of cooks and helpers, preference shall be given to Dalits, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” To this day, however, there are occasional media reports of parents resenting or resisting the appointment of Dalit cooks.

(p.89) Food for Equality

The findings of the Centre for Equity Studies (CES) survey, only partially available when this essay was written, are presented in Drèze and Goyal 2003. The text refers to an early analysis of the impact of midday meals on female school participation (Drèze and Kingdon 2001), now supplemented with many other studies.

Midday Meals and the Joy of Learning

This essay draws on the literature cited in Drèze and Khera 2009. The findings of the Samaj Pragati Sahyog and Farzana Afridi studies of midday meals in Madhya Pradesh are presented in Jain and Shah 2005, and Afridi 2010, respectively. The Delhi study quoted in the text is a draft version of De, Noronha, and Samson 2008.

Caste, Class, and Eggs

On the nutritional value of eggs, see e.g. Applegate 2000. Credit for the right to information query that drew attention to the non-vegetarian banquet hosted by the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh in Tokyo (as mentioned in the headnote to this section) is due to Ajay Dubey.


(*) October 2002.

(*) July–August 2003.

(*) July 2006.

(*) July 2015.