On July 17th in the Northeastern Indian state of Bihar, the New York Times reported, children complained that the free lunch at their state school tasted odd.
Half an hour later, they were all suffering severe stomach pains followed by vomiting and diarrhea. Within hours, 22 of the children were dead, and dozens of others hospitalized.
That night, officials said they believed they had found the cause: cooking oil stored in a container formerly used for insecticides. Later it turned out the school’s principal had bought the cooking oil from a store owned by her husband.
Since the event happened, The Times of India has reported that the death toll has risen to 27 children.
It’s a shocking and tragic blow to the Indian government’s Midday Meal program, which has sponsored free meals for school children countrywide since a Supreme Court order in 2001.
In the past, the program has been praised for giving underprivileged children the chance to get a proper education, where otherwise they might have had to work for a living just so they could eat.
So why did this negligence occur, and what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future?
Radha Krishna Das, the managing director of ISKCON Food Relief Foundation, says that this sad state of affairs is something that can be avoided in the future with the proper care and better systems.
One of the main issues is that the government’s Midday Meal scheme is not a centralized operation. The government simply provides the funding and some of the raw materials, while various groups step up to cook and distribute the free food to schools.
The positive side to this is that some of the groups are well-equipped NGOs such as ISKCON Food Relief Foundation (IFRF)—which does not have a branch in Bihar and was not involved in the tragic July 17th incident.
IFRF has twenty fully equipped modern kitchen facilities in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Jarkhand, West Bengal and Delhi, all of which are ISO 22000 certified and follow Food Safety regulations.
At ISKCON’s kitchens all raw food grains are first sent to a laboratory to be analyzed for chemicals, pesticides or other hazardous materials. The water that is used to clean and cook the food is softened and purified. Both the temperature the food is cooked at and its PH level are monitored. The containers the food is delivered in are meticulously cleaned, and are sealed for safety; and the food is delivered by IFRF’s own vans.
Meanwhile the staff receive a medical checkup every six months for infectious diseases and HIV, and are all trained in strict hygiene standards.
“They wear shoes that protect their entire feet, headgear that covers their hair, and gloves so that their hands do not come in contact with the food,” says Radha Krishna Das. “They also clip their nails regularly, and wash their hands after using the washroom.”
Even the minds of the cooks are clean: “We have cooks who follow a particular lifestyle, adhering to four regulative principles [no meat eating, no intoxication, no gambling and no illicit sex],” Radha Krishna says. “Their consciousness is in the mood of goodness. So these things ultimately do make a difference.”
Many of the other groups that cook and distribute Midday Meals, however, do not have the infrastructure that ISKCON does.
Some are small local women’s “self help groups.” Others are parent-teacher associations, as was the case in Bihar.
“In many places it is the school teachers themselves who are forced to cook, because they don’t have any other facilities,” says Radha Krishna Das.
Of the incredible 113 million meals sponsored daily by the government’s Midday Meal program, only 1.2 million—less than 1 per cent—is cooked and distributed by ISKCON Food Relief Foundation.
“113 million meals a day is no joke,” says Radha Krishna. “It is spread out through so many villages and rural areas and urban areas. So it is very difficult to bring the right level of education to the people who are cooking the meals. And they do not have the basic amenities, the requirements, the infrastructure. They do not have proper storage places, so there is a good chance of the food being infested by worms.”
There have even been horror stories of kitchens being located next to a toilet or near sewage. “All these things lead to such problems,” Radha Krishna says.
In addition, the “cooking charge” funds that the government currently provides to to support the Midday Meal scheme is only three rupees per meal per child. This is not enough to cover a high quality food preparation and distribution operation, so ISKCON raises its own funds to supplement the government’s. This is how ISKCON is able to not only keep high hygiene standards but also build its own state of the art kitchens.
Unfortunately, other groups do not have the resources to raise such funds—so they’re forced to cut corners by using inferior quality equipment and systems, leading to tragedies like the one in Bihar.
“The most important thing is that the cooking charges should be increased so that it is actually possible to provide nutritious meals with that amount,” says Radha Krishna. “Also, the raw materials that the government does provide, like rice or wheat, should be of very good quality and should be very nicely cleaned before being given to the Midday Meal scheme. These two things can be taken care of by the government.”
In addition, Radha Krishna suggests that the Indian government should send people to provide volunteer groups with basic guidelines and training in proper hygiene standards.
Finally, to prevent further disasters, he proposes that the government provide nice kitchens with basic amenities for all the groups volunteering in the Midday Meal program.
“We are willing to share our best practices with the Government to set up similar kitchens in other regions,” he says.
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