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India School Meal Tragedy - Unforgivable, But Avoidable

School meal programmes, no doubt, are a lifeline and shock absorber for millions in such situations. This is why the case of children dying in India's eastern state of Bihar as a result of contaminated meals, is such a tragedy.

Nearly 900 million people go to bed hungry every day because of exorbitant food costs, fuel price fluctuation, financial crisis and poverty.

Just pan the camera to Africa. In 2011 the Horn of Africa was crippled by one of the worst food crises in living memory, a disaster which left 12 million people hungry.

Last year over 18 million people were hit by a devastating food crisis, this time in the Continent's Sahel region. Children and women were disproportionately affected.

School meal programmes, no doubt, are a lifeline and shock absorber for millions in such situations.

This is why the case of children dying in India's eastern state of Bihar as a result of contaminated meals, is such a tragedy.

For millions of poor and malnourished children - both in India and worldwide - a school feeding programme is a lifeline.

For a country that is positioning itself as a global superpower, this preventable incident should serve as a wake-up call to authorities.

Forensic experts are now investigating the causes and a report is expected imminently. However, issues related to security of food distribution - especially school feeding - is not new. There are established good practises and lessons that should help to avoid such tragedies. The young lives that have been lost must serve as a lesson that we should seek to learn from.

Food safety and hygiene are the essential ingredients of any efficient and effective feeding project. Authorities who run such projects must adopt a rigorous approach on these issues.

School feeding - a lifeline for millions

Globally, 368 million children - that's about one out of every five - get a meal at school every day according to the UN's World Food Programme (WFP)

Global investments in school feeding programmes have been growing, with WFP estimating by about $75 billion a year.

However, it is an investment for the future and the returns are substantial.

School feeding programmes provide benefits in education, nutrition and local agriculture. The UN estimates that for every $1 spent by governments and donors, at least $3 is gained in economic returns. Recent research shows investments made for tackling malnutrition often multiply the benefits by 30 times. Yes, 30 times. On today's rates, it is better than what most of the high street bankers are offering.

Food - a matter of rights, safety and security

In the Indian context, the Supreme Court has given a court order that recognises food rights of its citizens, especially school children. It has issued clear instructions to ensure that the government puts adequate measures in place to meet the nutrition needs of pupils.

In a country where many parents struggle to provide three square meals a day these projects offer necessary sustenance to millions of poor and malnourished children.

When meals are prepared for thousands of children in a school setting on a daily basis, safety should be the most important ingredient. Safety needs to be ensured at all levels - from procurement, to transportation, storage to cooking and distribution. It is not rocket science.

The context in which school meal programmes are carried out in poor community settings also matters. Health systems are weak and clean water is often a luxury. Moreover, many such rural settings are flashpoints of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea.

International guidelines and standards insist that school feeding programmes should go hand in hand with water, sanitation and hygiene promotion. There is no point in providing good for children if they are eating with dirty hands and, in turn, getting diseases. Great care is needed at all levels.

School feeding programmes should also meet international standards- such as the Sphere Humanitarian standards hat recommend 2100 kilocalories a day.

Good practises and future measures

Guidelines are in place to ensure school feeding programmes are safe. UN agencies such as WFP and UNICEF and child rights and humanitarian agencies such as Plan International have been putting in joint efforts. Food safety and nutritional security are on the top of the list.

In practise this means simple, but robust initiatives. For example, in India, Plan International supports school meal programmes in nearly 5,000 schools through three key initiatives. Firstly, Plan trains women who cook the meals for school children on public health, hygiene and food safety issues.

Secondly, Plan supports school management committees and ensures that parents and local people have a key role in school meal programmes. A member of the committee is present every day when the meal is prepared and tastes the food before it is distributed to children. Finally, Plan works to ensure that clean water is available for cooking and drinking in such settings, along with soap and water to wash hands.

School meal programmes in India are free. At the same time, a free meal is not a reason to lower the standards and safety norms. When it comes to children, food safety is not just matter of concern, but a matter of human rights.

The tragedy in Bihar could have been avoided and precious lives of children could have been saved. In order to make this happen, the authorities must place food safety and children at the heart of school meal programmes.

The lives lost shows more needs to be done to improve safety. It is a wake-up call for the government.

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