The Covid pandemic has struck a heavy blow to India's school feeding programme and may have reversed years of progress in the fight against child malnutrition.
Now back in their classrooms in the wake of the pandemic, students of government schools across several states may have to wait a little longer for their lunches.
Until Covid hit, more than 87 percent of children in rural government schools were being served the "midday meal", touted as one of the largest school feeding programmes in the world.
It provided nutritious food to millions of Indian children and has also resulted in increasing student enrolment and improving attendance.
At the last count, the scheme covered 118 million children. But thousands of youngsters, especially from poor families, have dropped out of school over the past two years because of the Covid pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
Restarting the scheme after a long interruption is proving to be challenging in many schools.
Economists and civil society members say schools in rural areas face delays in the delivery of raw materials like grains and lentils used to cook the meals, while schools in the cities are yet to sign contracts with centralised kitchens that cater for the children.
“The benefits of school meals are well established, but government budget pressures threaten the sustainability of the programme," said Reetika Khera, a development economist. "It will also need to fend off corruption and corporate lobbyists if it is to continue to thrive.”
“This year's budget is slightly lower than last year's: in nominal terms, it has been slashed by about 10 billion rupees (123.4 million euros).”
Last month, Congress president Sonia Gandhi urged the government to restart the midday meal scheme in schools. She also asked the authorities to make available hot, cooked food to children under three-years-old, pregnant women and lactating mothers.
“When schools were shut down, the midday meals scheme was also discontinued. It was because of the National Food Security Act and directions from the Supreme Court that people were given dry rations. But, for children, dry rations are no substitute for cooked and nutritious meals," Gandhi said.
"But now, as children return to school, they need to be given better nutrition. Midday meals will also help bring those children back to school who had dropped out during the pandemic."
The country's latest National Family Health Survey found that one-third of all Indian children under the age of five were stunted and underweight, with little or no improvement in child nutrition levels since the previous survey was conducted in 2015-2016.
Educationists say that well-designed school feeding programmes have been shown to enable students to catch up from early growth failure and other negative shocks.
As such, once the schools reopen, the meal schemes can help address the deprivation that children have experienced during the closures and provide an incentive for the parents to send and keep their children, especially girls, in school.
Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, the central government had announced that 12 billion rupees (150 million euros) were to be given to 118 million children across the country who are enrolled under the midday meal scheme.
In other words, Rs 100 (1.23 euros) will be given per child as a one-time payment through direct benefit transfer.
This additional allocation was expected to take care of the nutritional needs of children as schools were shut for more than a year due to the pandemic.
Under the midday meal scheme of the Indian government, students in government schools receive free cooked hot meals once a day.
“The amount is just 100 rupees per child. This is also a one-time investment. How can one ensure nutritional security through this?” asked Dipa Sinha, who is associated with the Right to Food Campaign.
“Half of the money will be spent in going and withdrawing the grant from the banks.”
In terms of the food and nutrition security situation, India already has an unenviable rank of 94 among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index for 2020.