When Chief Minister K. Kamaraj brought in a free meal scheme to all panchayat and government-run primary schools in Tamil Nadu in 1956-57, he was reforging an earlier idea. On November 17, 1920, The Hindu reported that the Chennai Corporation council had unanimously decided to provide ‘tiffin’ to a local school in Chennai. The rationale was that the students were poor and it was not expensive (one anna for a student) to feed them. Shortly, the school noticed an increase in student attendance.
Kamaraj’s scheme was aided partly by the US voluntary organisation, CARE. The government contributed an anna and a half for each student; the rest came from CARE and local people. This modest mid-day meal scheme would soon grow into a game-changer for school attendance and children’s nutrition across India. And would become a working model for many countries to emulate.
In 1982, M.G. Ramachandran, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, included anganwadi children as well to the scheme in addition to primary school students. And two years later, the government extended it to all schoolchildren across the State.
A controversy arose in the 1980s when the scheme was named after M.G. Ramachandran, with Congress workers protesting because Kamaraj had pioneered the scheme and they wanted it to bear his name. But MGR’s party, Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, did not budge.
Later Chief Ministers, including M. Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa and M.K. Stalin, tried to incorporate extra nutrition into the meal to improve the scheme. In July 2022, Stalin introduced a breakfast scheme as well for students across the State. While in neighbouring Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated a scheme earlier this month on August 1, 2022, to provide milk and eggs two days a week to preschool children in State anganwadis in the State.
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In India, where State governments draw up and implement welfare programmes, the nutritious noon meal project is unique. It was thought up at the local level, implemented at the State level, and later scaled up to the national level.
According to the Union government’s school education website: “Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman, earlier known as the National Programme of Mid-Day Meal in Schools, is one of the foremost rights-based Centrally Sponsored Schemes under the National Food Security Act, 2013. The primary objective of the scheme is to improve the nutritional status of children studying in classes I-VIII in eligible schools.”