India’s Mid‑Day Meals Benefit Children’s Health Across Generations: Study
The mid-day meal (MDM) scheme in India among the world’s largest free school meal programs — around 116 million children are covered under the national program. A new analysis exploring the intergenerational impact of giving free meals in primary schools noted how children of the beneficiaries continue to have better growth prospects in life.
Titled “Intergenerational Nutrition Benefits of India’s National School Feeding Program,” the report was published in Nature on Monday. “School meals benefit education and nutrition in participants, but no studies have examined whether benefits carry over to their children,” the paper noted.
The researchers used data on mothers and children between 1993 to 2016 to gauge the impact of nutrition from free meals across generations. They found that women who received free meals in primary school have children with improved linear growth — that is, better physical growth supplemented with cognitive and socio-emotional development. A failure of adequate linear growth is linked to undernutrition and a cluster of other pathological changes, which are termed “stunting syndrome.”
“Our findings suggest that intervening during the primary school years can make important contributions to reducing future child stunting, particularly given the cumulative exposure that is possible through school feeding programs,” Suman Chakrabarti, one of the researchers at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), said.
Within India, 38% of children were reportedly stunted in 2015–2016. Addressing nutritional deficiencies in the school-going phase is critical for the proper growth and development of an individual. The findings address the problem of childhood stunting and show the important role nutrition and free meals like the MDM play in helping children reach their development potential. These nutrition benefits then pass on to the later generations.
“Findings from previous evaluations of India’s MDM scheme have shown a positive association with beneficiaries’ school attendance, learning achievement, hunger, and protein-energy malnutrition, and resilience to health shocks such as drought—all of which may have carryover benefits to children born to mothers who participated in the program,” Harold Alderman, co-author of the study and a researcher at the IFPRI, said.
The current study is also pertinent in the backdrop of the pandemic; free meals under MDM have slowed in pace. Due to school closures, children also had to miss out on the nutritional benefits of meals.
Experts worry it may have struck a blow to years of progress to tackle malnutrition and stunted growth.
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MDM has a long history in India that goes back to 1925, before it was officially launched in 1995. The scheme provides a free cooked meal to children in government and government-assisted primary schools (between the ages 6–10). Under the scheme, the minimum meal energy content is 450 kcal and the meal must contain 12 grams of protein.
The free lunch program is mandatory, and its reach has grown each year; nutritional benefits derived are also linked to better access to education and healthcare. Within the study, MDM was associated with 13–32% of the Height-for-age Z (HAZ) score improvement in India from 2006 to 2016. The HAZ is a marker of a child’s nutritional development.
“School feeding programs such as India’s MDM scheme have the potential for stimulating population-level stunting reduction as they are implemented at scale and target multiple underlying determinants of undernutrition in vulnerable groups,” study co-author Samuel Scott says, explaining the opportunities MDM scheme presents. Notably, the number of beneficiaries who avail the MDM scheme has increased over the years. In 2016–2017, 97.8 million children received a free cooked meal through the scheme every day.
Despite the prevalence of the MDM scheme, India remains home to the highest number of undernourished children. In the Global Hunger Index for 2020, India ranked 9 out of 107 countries. The latest National Family Health Survey-5 revealed malnutrition to be the most prevalent issue in children.
The current findings center on the opportunities the MDM presents and reinforces the idea of providing free, hot, cooked meals as a way to counter malnutrition. In January this year, the United Nations World Food Program called the scheme “life-saving” for millions of children.
Researchers say further studies are required to understand whether improving the quality or quantity of meals provided — and even extending the program beyond primary school — might further amplify the benefits of MDM and make it more accessible.