June 9, 2016 |

Feeding the future

How a midday meal is fortifying millions of schoolchildren in India.
Girls line up to wash their hands.
Girls line up to wash their hands at a government school in India. They’re learning about hygiene and healthy behaviors as part of a school feeding program. Photo: PATH/Gangadhar Bala G.

On a bright day, we reach the small village of Mantur, not far from Hubbali, the largest city in India’s North Karnataka region. After a bouncy ride on semipaved roads, we arrive at the gate of an old, high wall that leads to a higher primary school for girls. It’s lunchtime, and as we enter the school gates, we see children lined up to wash their hands and get ready to eat. On the menu today is hot Bisibelle bhath—a local, rice-based dish with vegetables and lentils—a meal that is served through the government-sponsored school feeding program.

Children in three districts in Karnataka are now getting warm midday meals with a bonus—the rice is fortified. It’s an important moment for the schoolchildren and for PATH.

A meal plan that feeds millions

Girls eating a meal.
PATH studies have shown the impact of fortified rice on nutritional levels among children. Photo: PATH/Gangadhar Bala G.

PATH, in partnership with the Akshaya Patra Foundation (Akshaya Patra), has introduced “Feeding the Future Through Fortified Rice,” a comprehensive nutrition program in Karnataka government schools. Akshaya Patra is one of the largest Indian nonprofit organizations, serving midday meals to 1.6 million children across the country. Through its centralized automated kitchens, Akshaya Patra cooks and serves fresh meals to the schools while maintaining high standards of quality and food safety.

Man wearing head covering stirring food in a giant steaming vat.
With help from PATH, Akshaya Patra’s program is a model for large, modern kitchens to prepare tens of thousands of fortified meals on a daily basis. Photo: PATH/Lynn Heinisch.

The school we’re visiting is part of a comprehensive strategy aimed at improving the health of schoolchildren by serving fortified rice in the midday meal and providing a curriculum that covers nutrition and health-enhancing behaviors.

I ask some of the teachers how the lunch program is going and if the children like the meals. “Akshaya Patra sends a meal that is fresh, tasty, and nutritious,” says Ramesh Kenganal, a senior teacher at the 198 student school. “All the children like this food and their health has improved because of it.”

Lata. G. Achari, another teacher, says, “Because of the nutrition and health education program, children are now aware of personal hygiene, cleanliness of the classroom, and they work in teams to keep their school premises tidy.”

Clean, well-fed, and ready to learn

A row of boys sit ready for their meal.
In India, the union government recently launched the national guidelines on food fortification standards, a huge opportunity to expand rice fortification availability and access. The midday meal program alone has the potential to reach 100 million children across 1.15 million schools. Photo: PATH/Gangadhar Bala G.

Through this initiative, midday meals containing rice fortified with iron, vitamin A, and vitamin B complex are now reaching 450,000 children in 2,538 government schools every day.  At the same time, the students receive nutrition education and health-enhancing behaviors focused on handwashing, using toilets, and keeping their environment clean and tidy. These messages are taught through games, rhymes, and group activities.

This program is well-received by the teachers and students alike. Soubhagya Akki, a student in the school we’re visiting says, “Each afternoon when the midday meal comes, I wash my hands and eat my food.” She adds, “I told my mother and sister about hygiene practices. I motivated many others in my neighborhood to practice hygiene.”

Her teacher Ms. A. N. Koshti agrees, “Children are showing an interest in hygiene practices like handwashing, through small messages and rhymes. The nutrition and health education is really helpful.” Beyond improving nutrition and health-enhancing behaviors, this approach is proving to be an innovative strategy to reach the community, generating the importance of good nutrition and health by incorporating children as agents of change.

It’s all coming together for the teachers and students in schools like the one in Mantur. While they’re appreciating the benefits of eating fortified rice, they are also realizing the importance of ensuring a clean and hygienic surrounding, personal hygiene, and safe drinking water to live a healthy life.

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  • Arvind Betigeri is the project manager of Rice Fortification for the India Country Program at PATH.