I was living in a village but studying in the primary school of another village because my father was the headmaster of the high school in that village–it was easier for him to carry me along with him and bring back after school. The life of a village in Punjab around 30-40 years back was very good–given the fresh air, clean water, green fields, and a carefree time of the childhood could make you yearn for it every now and then. Times have changed but still the incidents and events of that time leave an indelible mark on your memory.
Fresh produce of the fields
There’s hardly anything that can beat the idea of having something to eat in the childhood–whether it is a chocolate, a candy, a cake, or a slice of pizza. However, school is a time where you not served any of these delicacies rather are expected to focus on learning and studies. A few schools allow to have a privately-run canteen like colleges or universities but mostly ask the parents to provide the food to their wards or expect the children to hold their belly-fire till they go back to home.
Yet studies showed that serving children something to eat in the school gives a lot of impetus to them for their learning and it has led to a lot of government-supported schemes across the world. Not only India, a lot of other countries are realizing the potential it has on the educational and behavioral outcomes of school-time for children.
However, the scene of the incident that I am trying to describe is different. Pizza was an unheard word and there were no cakes available in the village. Chocolate was available on very yet scarce special occasions (though I never liked eating a chocolate; till even now), yet around 20 different kinds of candies were there including sweet and spice-based. But for us, nothing trumped the idea of plucking a carrot or a radish or a beetroot from the field; washing it from the running borewell motor; and, eating it then and there.
I was in the fifth grade and was definitely not a miscreant in the class. The bathrooms for boys were not there–we just had to use the space behind the walls of the rooms. On a particular day, while we were relieving ourselves, I noticed that a couple of boys climbed down the small boundary wall that led to the village road and on the other side of the road was a field full of produce of various varieties. I saw them eating fresh vegetables and could not resist myself. Within a second, the control of my mind being a good boy dissolved in thin air and I too jumped and ate a few of them.
A mortal sin had been committed by me!
By the time we returned back to the place designated for urination, our teacher had arrived suspecting something fishy because too many of us asked for that time at the same time and didn’t return within the expected stipulated duration.
What happened next, you can easily imagine–each of us were given a few lashes of the freshly cut mulberry tree cane and I never did that kind of thing again. Burned once and shy forever, I would say!
Bringing and holding children in schools
Even now, if you go deep into the countryside, you will notice the children do not like to attend school as much as they would like something to eat or play. This is where the mid-day meal scheme has played a very vital role in increasing the attendance of the schools. Yet, more can be done.
There are instances aplenty where teachers have to wait till children come to school or eventually have to go like a hawker in the cul-de-sacs of the village to bring the children to school. Many of them still would like to come to school late so that within a few minutes of their attending the school, mid-day meal is ready and they could fill their bellies.
No denying that there are too many variables that play the part of reasons for this behavior, and correcting or arresting one of those parameters would not solve the problem. Yet, something interesting has been happening and the results are remarkable.
Sri Sathya Sai Annapoorna Trust has been serving morning nutrition to government schoolchildren and it has shot the attendance of the children to almost 100 percent in many cases–attendance at the right time in the morning because the children know when they go to school, they will be served with a tasty chocolate-flavored cup of nutrition.
They began serving around 12 years ago in one school of 50 children and are now covering close to 3 million children across India. The impact is not simply on their attendance but also their focus and energy level–there is a greater enthusiasm with which children want to come to school, which shows its effect on the teachers also who are now more eager to impart the knowledge because the children are taking interest.
Their intervention is based on a fortified health mix which supplements the scheme of various state governments who have started providing milk to children in schools. This health mix can be easily integrated with the milk and served fresh bringing taste and health benefits at the same time because it is fortified with various micro and macro-nutrients.
The Trust has an ambitious plan of making sure that no child goes to school hungry, every but the very first thing they are doing is making sure children going to school after all!
I am sure with the wide array of impact they are bringing to the table, a lot of societal bodies including the governments, organizations and individuals will like to support and partner with them to make this vision an achieved reality.