18 February 2013

Mauritius: Hot Mid-Day Meal in the Primary Schools

The recent unfortunate and highly deplorable incident that occurred in Bambous A primary school resulting in the sudden sickness and hospitalisation of a large number of pupils of that school, following what would appear to be cases of food poisoning, does not at all justify the Honourable Minister of Education's public statement decrying the recently-introduced free lunch project.

Pending police & other enquiries, we can only surmise that the children have been served with contaminated food, for which everybody is pointing a finger at the caterer. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only reported case of food poisoning since the introduction of that particular school feeding project and that too in one specific school.

The Minister's gut reaction seems to be one of throwing the baby out with the bath water. This highly commendable Project came into being when the Minister of Finance, Hon Xavier Duval, announced in his last budget speech that a hot midday meal would be served to children attending ZEP schools.

I had been personally advocating the introduction of a hot mid-day meal to the school children of families belonging to the vulnerable groups of our society for the last 8 years or so persistently addressing letters of appeal to successive Ministers of Finance for the introduction of a scheme that would provide at least one hot meal to the ill-nourished children of our society. Such children do not all attend ZEP schools and are even present in some of the so-called star schools.

However, I considered that the Minister's initiative, although to a certain extent discriminatory, deserved appreciation and I was among the first to congratulate him on it while, at the same time, expressing the hope that the project would be extended to all primary schools. I have written so much and so often about the benefits that the children would derive from this hot mid-day meal, including and especially that of being more apt to assimilate what they are being taught in their respective class rooms, that I don't think I need to repeat them here once again.

It has been proved beyond the shadow of any doubt that such a meal allows for a more level playing field among the classmates and is actually the first step towards ensuring equal opportunity at school. The project may have been hurriedly introduced without ensuring any proper planning. Such failure explains the weaknesses of the project that need to be addressed and remedied wherever necessary, but the project should certainly not be torpedoed and replaced by the rolls-cheese-dry fruits of yesteryears, repugnant to most children they were destined for.

There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't be able to find the correct formula to provide for a wholesome meal at school for our children. I remember visiting, a couple of years ago, an RCA school in Goodlands where, well before the introduction of the ZEP project, a mid-day hot meal was being served to the children of poor families, through voluntary contribution.

Adequate space is provided for a kitchen in the school building, where the food is cooked, respectful of the hygienic norms, and served fresh to the kids. Nothing amiss has so far been reported about this benevolent enterprise.

The Minister of Education should perhaps be reminded that India feeds 120 million kids a day yes, the Indian government provides free hot lunches to 120 million students everyday, the largest school lunch program in the world.

It was in2001 that India's Supreme Court ordered the Government to provide hot lunches nationwide - a mandate that has albeit been widely implemented only in recent years. United States which, in 2009, provided free or subsidised lunches to some 30 million children pales into insignificance besides the Indian massive undertaking. We have a lesson or two to learn from Mother India, Mr Minister!

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