A few residents of Kannagi Nagar Block 1 were occupied with the task of sun-drying salted fish on jute sheets; there were children in school uniforms amongst them. At the entrance of the block, under the relentless noon sun, the women talked about the state government’s newly launched breakfast scheme in government-run schools – sharing their optimism and concerns.
The breakfast scheme being discussed was inaugurated on September 15, 2022, on a small scale before being expanded the following year to cover primary schools across the entire state. The scheme now spans more than 1,500 government schools throughout Tamil Nadu.
In Tamil Nadu, there are two meal programs for students in government schools: the midday meal program, which has been running since 1956, providing lunch, and the new breakfast scheme. The midday meal scheme in government and government-aided schools covers students studying in Classes I to X and the breakfast scheme covers students from Classes I to V.
With an allocation of Rs 12.75 per child, the breakfast scheme extends beyond merely addressing the nutritional needs of school-going children. It serves as a shield against absenteeism, aims to improve enrolment and retention rates and has been launched with a view to creating a similar impact on educational outcomes as the widely lauded midday meal scheme.
Students and parents laud free breakfast scheme
Resettlement colonies in Chennai such as Kannagi Nagar, Perumbakkam and Semmenchery have seen a myriad of issues with government schools. The students and parents have in the past complained of lack of adequate facilities and staff and poor delivery of government schemes such as the midday meal scheme.
However, the breakfast scheme’s implementation in these areas has earned positive comments from the students and parents alike.
Sumati, a mother of two children who are enrolled in Kannagi Nagar Government School, expresses her relief at the launch of the breakfast scheme. She says, “I used to constantly worry about my children’s health, but now I am hopeful about the timely meals provided at school.”
Swapna, a student of Class IV from Kannagi Nagar, expresses her fondness for the program. She adds that before the scheme’s introduction, private organisations used to provide food at her school.
What is served as part of the free breakfast scheme:
Semiya, rava upma, wheat upma, rice upma, kichadi and pongal along with locally available vegetables are served from Monday to Friday. The students are provided 150 to 200 grams of cooked food and 60 grams of sambar with vegetables. A total of 13 types of food items are served on a rotation basis.
While midday meals are prepared on the school campuses, breakfast scheme meals are cooked in centralised kitchens.
Shradha, a student of Class XI says, “My younger sister used to arrive at school late and lacked interest in studying or playing in the morning due to not having breakfast at home. However, with the launch of the breakfast scheme in school, she now sees it as a communal activity that she can enjoy surrounded by friends.”
Shanti and Raji, parents of school-going students in Kannagi Nagar, acknowledge the significance of the scheme and add that the continued vigour in executing the program is crucial, as it directly impacts their children’s wellbeing. They highlight the challenges they face in providing a nutritious morning meal for their children at home, especially given their constant concerns about livelihood.
Joel Shelton, activist and policy researcher at Chennai-based NGO Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), emphasises the positive response from the beneficiaries and adds that he considers the breakfast scheme a well-executed program that significantly contributes to the welfare of its recipients.
“I have observed and inspected the implementation of the breakfast scheme closely in Perumbakkam. I can see how the scheme is helping. I see its huge potential and that it’s executed well so far, with food arriving at the right time,” says Joel.
Scope for improvement of breakfast scheme
While the breakfast scheme has received a largely positive response, there are still gaps in the schooling system in the resettlement colonies that need to be addressed to improve its impact.
Arul Doss, an activist and general convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movement delves into systemic issues affecting the reach of schemes like these in resettlement areas.
He says that policies often concentrate resources and facilities in urban centres, creating an “untouchability within untouchability” for marginalised communities. This layered caste-based discrimination perpetuates when students must travel long distances to access proper schools, with their families bearing the financial burden.
“In many cases, this results in the abandonment of education and the acceptance of menial jobs, robbing children of their childhood and their adulthood prospects. My plea is for the establishment of more schools in Semmenchery, Kannagi Nagar, and Perumbakkam, addressing the systemic issues at their root.”
There is also a call for expanding the coverage offered by the scheme. At present, the scheme is only extended to primary school students.
Keerthi, a student of Class VII at the Kannagi Nagar Government School, says “I receive midday meals but not breakfast. I want to be able to have breakfast as well. My younger brother gets food in the morning.”
Shamila, a resident of Kannagi Nagar, says, “From water supply to gathering ingredients for cooking, it is a huge task to put food on the plate at home. Therefore, the government should extend schemes like this to a larger level so that our lives can be easier.”
Over the years, free school meals have evolved beyond a mere nutritional program. They have emerged as a formidable force for positive change, breaking down barriers to health, education, and equality.
Through the launch of the free breakfast scheme in the state, the journey to maximise these benefits continues, fueled by the stories of students, parents, and activists, all working together to ensure that no child is left behind.