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India’s School Lunch Program Tragedy

July 17, 2013
An Indian girl eats lunch at school as part of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme.

An Indian girl eats lunch at school as part of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme.

Tragedy struck in India this week as 47 students fell ill and 22 died after consuming food tainted with a powerful insecticide. The tainted rice was consumed as part of a school lunch known as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, consisting of rice, soybeans, and potatoes on Tuesday. India boasts the world’s largest public nutrition program, and the lunch was served as part of that program, intended to bolster school attendance and improve student performance in school. The program reaches some 120 million children in 1.2 million schools across the country.

The tragedy sparked protests on Wednesday. During the protests, at least four police vehicles were set alight. The government has promised a complete investigation into the incident and has offered to compensate the families of the children in the amount of 200,000 rupees (about $3,300).

Each of the deaths of the 22 children is a tragedy in its own right. Equally tragic, though, would be the loss of the school lunch program as a result of the poisoning. Recent improvements in the program have resulted in more timely delivery of higher quality food. Some are concerned that the tragedy may undermine support for and participation in the program. And the tragedy certainly speaks to the need to improve safety in school kitchens and the quality of the food served. But the program itself remains a powerful tool to in addressing the challenges of childhood malnutrition in India.

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