For anganwadi workers, a typical morning often means going around houses in a village to remind children to attend their child care centres. There, the workers conduct a range of development activities for their charges and, most of all, serve them a hot cooked meal. Over the past few months however, anganwadi workers have had a different routine – as frontline delivery agents of Covid-19 services, conducting door-to-door visits, awareness checks and delivering essentials. While these are important emergency services, the lack of child services has created an enormous problem.

Over 120 million children in India are served by the midday meal scheme, just over half of whom get it in anganwadi centres. The others get it in school. These meals are crucial both for child nutrition and cognitive development.

According to the United Nation’s Policy brief on the Impact of Covid-19 on Children, 368.5 million children in 143 countries who usually rely on meal programmes for reliable daily nutrition will face malnutrition. A recent paper in Lancet notes that school meals are important in child nutrition and crisis responses. However, most countries have focused on short-term business relief and social protection, not long-term recovery for healthier and more equal societies, it says.

For children in anganwadis and government schools in India, the mid-day meal is an important part of their daily dietary intake. The New Education Policy 2020 goes a step further on the importance of school feeding and adds a nutritious breakfast in schools.

“…Research shows that the morning hours after a nutritious breakfast can be particularly productive for study of cognitively more demanding subjects and these hours may be leveraged by providing a simple but energizing breakfast in addition to midday meals,” it says.

Malnutrition deaths

A study by the Indian Council of Medical Research’s National Institute of Nutrition says that two out of three deaths of children in India are associated with malnutrition. Malnutrition affects the health and economic productivity through a person’s lifetime.

The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey, 2018, highlights the deficiency in dietary diversity among children. Among children in the 6 months-23 months age group, only 21% have minimum dietary diversity. Among school-going children aged between 5 years and 9 years, 22% are stunted – meaning that the child is not the optimum height for their age – and 35% underweight. In the 0-4 year category, 34.7% are stunted and 33.4% are underweight.

Anganwadi centres are also an important source of nutritional services for pregnant women and new mothers.

With child nutrition already a big concern, the closure of schools and anganwadi centres due to the lockdown will have a deep impact on these children, particularly when school meals are absent. In April, the Central government announced that food security allowance, or dry rations could be given in lieu of school meals even during school closures. However, there has been very little progress implementing this. While states have received ad hoc funds of Rs. 2,566.93 crore from the Centre for the year 2020-’21and have begun distributing dry rations or cash transfers in July, hot cooked meals are still a far cry.

Noting concerns around this, the Madras High Court observed during a PIL hearing on July 13 that these services should be delivered uninterrupted. It also suggested that eggs, part of the Tamil Nadu Mid-Day Meal scheme, should be given to children at least once a week.

Children eat their midday meal at an andganwadi in Ramanagara district, Karnataka. Credit: Nayantara Narayanan

The fact that many of the anganwadi centres are not functioning with their usual services has also made it difficult for parents with young children to take up employment: many depended on these centres to care for children while they were at work.

Unless strong measures are taken to ensure nutritious food for children, the World Food Programme’s warning in April about the possibility of a “hunger pandemic”, with millions of children worldwide facing extreme poverty, cannot be ruled out in India.

There are some silver linings. In a progressive measure, Puducherry announced the Improved Dr Kalaignar Karunanidhi Morning Breakfast and Nutrition Scheme for students in government schools and allocated Rs 6 crore for it. This scheme will start from November 14, Children’s Day. The territory already set an example, providing milk in the mornings to school-going children. Meanwhile, in Chennai, the municipality is providing breakfast for all children studying in government schools,in collaboration with NGOs.

Establishing priorities

Even as states struggle with cash deficits, they must prioritise and look at innovative ways to offer child welfare, especially nutrition.

  •   First, they should immediately resume school and anganwadi meal services, either as hot meals or as dry, take-home rations, making a special effort to supply nutritious foods that includes eggs.  
  •   Second, when schools reopen, states should implement the proposal in the new education policy to provide breakfasts for students, especially on high malnutrition burden districts.  
  •   Third, they should focus providing hot cooked meals with locally grown vegetables and according to the tastes of the children as schools resume services.  
  •   Fourth, anganwadi centres and meal services should be restarted to enable young children to get special care and parents to seek employment during that time.  
  •   Five, private-sector Corporate Social Responsibility funding and local funds and partnerships should be leveraged specifically to strengthen meal services.  
  •   In addition, community-based organisations and support groups should be used to implement these meal schemes and to monitor how they are functioning.  

With every passing week of missed nutrition, we are placing a generation of children at risk of decreasing their potential and economic contributions in the future. Even after the pandemic is long gone, for over 200 million Indian children, the impact of diminished nutrition could continue to stay all through their lifetime.

Jayashree B is a media and development communication professional.
R Gopinath is an economist who studies food security issues.
The authors work with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. Views expressed are personal.