Significance of school meal in Bangladesh
The government of Bangladesh has approved the most commendable and prudential National School Meal Policy, 2019 to bring all students of government primary schools under universal midday meal coverage by 2023. The midday meal aims to meet 30 per cent calories and 50 per cent micronutrient of the primary school students aged 3 to 12 years. More than 1.40 crore students of 66,000 government primary schools across the country would be provided with mid-day meals by 2023 and it will cost Taka 2,835 crore per year for giving fortified biscuits to the students, Taka 5,560 crore for giving cooked foods in five days and biscuits in one day and Taka 7,475 crore to give egg, banana and bread.
The school meal scheme is a century-old programme which was first introduced in Munich, Germany in 1790. In Bangladesh, the School Feeding Programme started in 2002 in collaboration with the UN World Food Programme. Bangladesh currently has two school feeding programmes: under the first one, it distributes packets of biscuits, each weighing 75 grams to about three million children at primary schools in 104 Upazilas; and under the second one it provides cooked midday meal of vegetable khichuri to around 34,000 students in three Upazilas.
Several studies revealed the remarkable outcomes of these school feeding programmes, including: 1) its significant contribution in higher enrolment rates; 2) improvement in attendance and accelerating a higher number of primary education completions; 3) reduction in absenteeism and drop-out rates even in poverty-stricken areas; and 4) in mitigating hungers and improvement of nutrient-intakes.
We must recognise that our future development and strength of our nation absolutely depend on the well-being of our children. So people from all walks of life should come forward to support and help these programmes to explore full potentials for the welfare of our nation.School Feeding Programmes offer a number of benefits including the followings:
1. It encourages parents and students to enrol in schools at an early age even in the poverty-proneareas and thus helps to attain the goal - "education for all". The health and educational benefits of school feeding have life-long impacts on children.
2. It increases regular attendance and decreases dropout and makes an environment conducive to the students to concentrate more their mind in education that accelerates a higher rate of primary education completions.
3. It helps to support the growth of the children by providing vitamins and minerals to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies and mal-nutrition and improves the nutritional status of the children which minimises the short-term hunger.
4. It encourages students to improve their nutrition, and choose healthy foods and learn good dietary habits through school meals and nutrition education. It enables students to develop lifelong healthful eating habits having knowledge on food quality, nutritional food-value, nutrition awareness, sanitation and good hygiene practices.
5. It opens huge job opportunities and can provide a much-needed source of income for ultra-poor women in the rural community.
6. School Food Programme can play a very important role in reducing hunger and poverty in the rural area.
7. Even in an affluent area school meal programme can promote nutrition education and physical activity to combat overweight and prevent chronic diseases.
The government of Bangladesh has rightly taken this highly ambitious project based on our initial success, considering it as 'an essential tool for the development and growth of children, communities, and society as a whole'.We have so far gainedvaluable experiences from our past projects of Food for Education (FFE) and School Feeding Programme (SFP), which will help us to meet the challenges in the following areas.
Planning of SFP: The planning for a sustainable School Feeding Programme requires clear understanding of the concepts, objectives, benefits, long term impacts, limitations and role of the various stakeholders.It envisages various aspects including needs assessment, risk assessment, logistic supports, involvement of teachers-parents-students, NGOs, local agro-economic conditions, local traders, availability of local products and food, food safety and quality, socio-cultural practices, and health and nutrition education.
Design and implementation of SFP: One of the most challenging tasks is to design an appropriate and sustainable operational modality integrating into the national context considering institutional frameworks, role of state-actors, community participation, availability of local foods, food supply chain, nutrition standard, nutrition education, allocation and flow of funds, food safety and quality, monitoring and accountability. The key operational strategy is to ensure consistent supply of safe and quality meals to the students.
Bangladesh is blessed with abundant food products including food grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, fish, meat etc. scattered in different parts of the country. We have plenty of rice, Hilsa fish, Dry fish, Mangoes, Bananas , Pineapple, Jack fruits, Litchi, Watermelon and Milk. The present policy allows the selection of 'food menu' in consultation with the schools' managing committees, parents and locals. It facilitates the selection of menu considering the major food products available in the area which will be very cheap as compared to other areas.
Fund management: Consistent adequate financing is one of the major challenges in this programme. It is possible to develop a stable funding source along with the government finance through sensitisation, awareness building, and clarifying the benefits of school meals to all concerned.The government is considering of requesting businesses and banks to spend their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds on this programme.National and International NGOs can also extend their supports and help to this programme. NGOs such as BRAC,'Banchteshekha' etc have already made appreciable contributions to the school meal programme.
The government also intends to engage private entrepreneurs based on a public-private partnership at union levels to provide the school meals. The rich people living around the school can also come forward voluntarily to contribute to this programme. It needs strong government initiative as a driving force.
Monitoring and Evaluation:Reliable, timely and accurate monitoring and evaluation system is a very powerful tool to make sure the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of this programme. According to the policy a National School Meal Authority will supervise the overall activities and an advisory committee comprising eminent personalities of the society will evaluate and give necessary advice to make it a success. It shows any lapses, mistakes, gaps and achievements. It identifies any omissions, revisions, additions, corrections or interventions that need to be addressed. It helps to identify any element that requires further research for future development.
In our country corruption is an inherent risk andthere is a great challenge of combating possible corruption and irregularities of this programme. We have to find out the ways and means to eliminate corruption from this programme. The present policy considers only for the students of government primary schools but for the interest of our nation all the students of primary schools should be included in this programme irrespective of public or private sectors.
The writer is former editor, Journal of the Institution of Engineers, Bangladesh