Islamuddin is happy his sons have started getting a good midday meal in their school daily. He is running a small grocery shop in a slum area off Ferozpur Road, Lahore, and his two sons – nine-year-old Irfanuddin and seven-year-old Imamuddin – are class 4 and 2 students, respectively, at the City District Government (CDG) Boys Primary School, Bhabra.
In the last week of January 2022, the school headmaster called him, along with other parents, to school and informed them the government would start giving all students lunch in school from the first week of February, and they should send their children regularly.
One of the parents meeting the headmaster suggested he give the amount for the free lunch to parents in cash on weekly or monthly basis, and they would themselves arrange for the midday meal for their children. He believed that the programme might get corrupted sooner or later as ‘big’ money was involved in the process. However, Islamuddin opposed the suggestion, as he knew that the money provided to parents in cash would never be utilised for children’s midday meals. Almost all parents like him are always cash-strapped, and the amount given to them would be spent for the payment of utility bills or purchase of daily-use items for the family.
The plan, however, has changed the behaviour of his wife and sons, as far as going to school is concerned. Neither his wife nor his sons ever talk of leave from school after the start of the midday free meal in school. Punjab School Education Minister Murad Raas also mentions this change in parents and students’ behaviour proudly. At the launching ceremony of the programme in Lahore in the first week of February 2022, he told the media that schools involved in the programme had seen a 33% increase in attendance, and a 77% improvement in students’ health and BMI (body mass index) levels. (BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms, divided by the square of height in meters. If your BMI is 18.5 to 25, it falls within the healthy weight range. If your BMI is 25 to 30, it falls within the overweight range. If your BMI is 30 or higher, it falls within the obesity range).
According to the 2018 National Nutrition Survey, 18% children under five years of age suffer from wasting, 40% suffer from stunting, 48% are anaemic and 29% are underweight in Pakistan. The situation definitely needs a special programme on part of the government to safeguard the future of the nation and the country.
There are 535 primary schools in Lahore district, and the meal programme will begin in 100 of those in the first phase. The minister launched the programme in 16 schools on February 3, 2022. The minister told the ceremony participants that the programme would be gradually expanded to address the issues of malnutrition and stunted growth among young students.
In Lahore, the free midday meals are being provided to students with the support of Allah Wallay Trust and Honda Pakistan. The minister called upon the private sector to join hands in the noble initiative. He said the programme had a good impact on the attendance, health, and retention of students in schools where it had already been launched. The school meal programme pilot project was launched in November 2020, which is progressing at a slow pace, and now charity and public welfare organisations have also been involved in the initiative.
However, the idea of providing free meals to schoolchildren through charity organisations is hard to digest for Muhammad Ilyas Anjum, a representative of a schoolteachers association. “Providing our schoolchildren with charity meals shows how much we, as a society, and the elected government, care about our next generation,” he says in an informal talk with Cutting Edge in Lahore. He regrets that no mentionable funds had been allocated so far in the annual finance bills since the start of the initiative in 2020.
In the past, a small-scale programme of school meals was also launched in Pakistan in the 1990s under the title Tawana Pakistan. It was closed down after a few years of operations due to alleged corruption and implementation deficits. However, any fresh plans in this regard could not be abandoned due to a failure, mainly caused due to misgovernance in the past. The midday free meals in schools is not a new idea. In various countries including Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Estonia, United States, United Kingdom, etc., such programmes are already under way. However, the most practicable example comes from the neighbouring country for the authorities in Pakistan. The Midday Meal Programme (MMP) in India is the world’s largest such programme, and it has been running since 1995. It covers around 120 million children in over 1.26 million schools, with an estimated budget allocation of over 105 billion Indian rupees annually. Its purpose was to enhance enrolment, retention and attendance rates as well as improving the nutritional levels of children, and the same are the requirements in Pakistan’s school education system.
The federal and provincial governments will have to design and implement different interventions for different age groups of children, given their unique nutrition requirements and feeding practices. But such programmes could not be run through charities, and the Punjab provincial government would have to make special and big allocations every year for the purpose.