Schools in Andhra's Bommanahal dish out mid-day meals without cooking sheds, storerooms


by IANS | Sat, Oct 28, 2023, 12:24 PM

Anantapur (Andhra Pradesh), Oct (IANS/ 101 Reporters) In her role as the main cook of the Zilla Parishad High School at Devagiri, the first task of Boya Gouramma (43) is to get fresh vegetables for the nutritious meals provided under the Andhra Pradesh government's Jagananna Gorumudda Scheme.

Around 3 a.m. on every working day, she travels with her son on a two-wheeler or takes an auto to the vegetable market located 25 km away, in Bellary of neighbouring Karnataka.

She returns home with the vegetables around 6 am, and starts cooking the curry to be served to the school students for lunch at her home itself. A total of 191 students study in Devagiri high school in Bommanahal block (mandal) of Anantapur district. On average, 150 students attend. However, there is no cooking shed on the school premises, due to which a small unused room serves as kitchen.

About 80 per cent of the schools in rural areas of Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh do not have facilities to run Jagananna Gorumudda Scheme

Gouramma carries the curry to the school around 10 a.m. Subsequently, she and helpers Boya Sunkanna and Boya Thippamma handle the rest of the cooking there. All of them have been serving as mid-day meal workers in the school since 2019.

"Vegetables should be fresh, so I go to Bellary to bring them. According to the number of the students present, the headmaster provides us with rice, ragi flour, jaggery, eggs and peanut-chikkis," Gouramma tells 101Reporters.

After cleaning utensils and washing rice, they cook it on an LPG stove. The food is ready by 11.30 a.m., and the children line up for lunch once the headmaster tastes the meal. After serving food to the children and cleaning the utensils, Gouramma and helpers return home by 2 p.m.

Golle Onnuru Swamy (46) has a similar schedule. He also heads to Bellary, located 45 km from Govindawada, in an auto around 3 a.m. 

After buying vegetables, he goes straight to the Zilla Parishad High School at Govindawada around 6 am, where his team of helpers — Golle Umaraj, Oggani Hanumappa, Golle Lakshmi, Golle Sunkamma and Oggani Obulamma — would start their work by cleaning utensils and vegetables.

Together, they form the Dharani self-help group (SHG) that has been dishing out nutritious meals to the students of the school in Bommanahal block since 2008. 

"We have been providing quality meals as per the menu. That is why our SHG is able to continue till now," Swamy, the main cook, tells 101Reporters.  

Once the cleaning is over, the headmaster checks the freshness of vegetables. 

"We start preparing meals after eating breakfast brought from home. It will be half past eleven when the cooking is done," he adds.

The lunchtime is at 12.15 p.m. When the bell rings, girls and boys line up separately. After distributing the lunch, the team has to clean the utensils and cooking area. 

"It will be half past two when we finish our work," says Swamy.

Brewing issues

Known earlier as mid-day meal scheme, the Jagananna Gorumudda Scheme with its enhanced menu has received positive feedback. 

Studying in classes 9 and 10 in Devagiri school, Nimbagallu Charan Kumar, Kandepalli Anjali, Vadde Lakshmi and Boya Surendra are happy with the food they receive. For them, Thursday's menu is special as they get sambarbath on that day.

However, the scheme faces several challenges. There is no cooking shed in Govindawada school where 746 children study. The workers use firewood for cooking as LPG cylinders are expensive. 

"During rainy and windy seasons, it is difficult to prepare meals outside. We have been working like this since 2008. In all seasons, be it summer, winter, rainy or windy, we need to bring fresh vegetables from Bellary," says Swamy.

Delayed payment is another major issue. 

"The bills (the money spent on food materials) for the months of July and August have not been paid yet. Four years ago, we did not get the payment for eight months. However, we worked without any complaint. The government should look into our practical difficulties and support us accordingly," he says.

"Now, we get Rs 8.55 for one meal per head. It should be increased according to the market rate. In July and August, we bought one kg ginger for Rs 400 and 25 kg of tomatoes for Rs 3,250. As we travel frequently, accident and group insurance coverage is good for us, if the government provides," he adds. 

In a month, the SHG spends Rs 70,000 to 80,000 buying food items to run the scheme.

"Despite working hard for 15 years, our honorarium is only Rs 3,000. It does not match with our labour. Sometimes, there is a delay in payment as well," says one of the helpers, on condition of anonymity.

Gouramma says prices of LPG cylinders, ingredients and vegetables have gone up. 

"It would be good if the government arranges cooking sheds, storage facilities and insurance, and increase the price per head according to the market rate."

Teachers' supervision plays a role  

There are 50 schools, including primary, upper primary and high schools, in Bommanahal block. 

"Our school has the highest number of 746 students in the block. We need to feed around 700 daily. There is enough fresh water and a 10-acre ground for extracurricular activities," Rachuri Soorudu, headmaster, Govindawada Zilla Parishad High School, tells 101Reporters.

To maintain the quality of food, one subject teacher strictly supervises the cleaning and cooking activities every day. 

"We use 90 to 100 kg of fortified rice per day. Eggs are given five days a week, while ragi java [finger millet malt] and chickpeas are given three days a week on alternate working days. We implement the menu strictly. In certain periods like shravana masam, some students do not consume eggs," he informs.

Twice a week, the staff of the primary health centre conduct health check-ups for students. If anyone is found to be suffering from anaemia and low weight, he/she is given medicines.

"We conduct a toolbox talk with the workers at the cooking area daily on how to maintain hygiene. As a result, no issue of food poisoning has arisen so far. We strictly monitor the food items daily and use fresh vegetables only," Soorudu says, adding that there is no caste discrimination in the school.

Teachers highlight that all activities under the scheme and toilet maintenance fund should be uploaded in IMMS (Integrated Monitoring System for Mid-day Meal and Sanitation) app every day. Tasting register should be maintained offline, and the mandal education officer (MEO) would randomly carry out inspections. The app will update the daily menu details and allow authorities to promptly address complaints, if any.

"The scheme has been implemented without any irregularities as the supervision of teachers is good. But, to achieve 100 per cent desired results, a cooking shed, storage facility, community dining hall, water supply and a dedicated cleaner should be present. About 80 per cent of schools in rural areas of Anantapur district do not have cooking sheds. Teachers raise these issues in block level meets and headmaster meets," a senior teacher with 25 years of service and two cluster resource persons told 101Reporters on condition of anonymity.

According to teaching staff who wish to be anonymous, the cooking setup is mostly temporary. In many schools, the workers use unused rooms. In some schools, temporary kitchens were arranged through donations. Due to lack of shared dining halls, students eat their meals in classrooms or on verandas.  

The staff claim that in a school in Bommanahal block, three groups of workers stopped their mid-day meal services in just a year due to irregular payments.

'Facilities in six months'  

"We have instructions from higher authorities to complete new school buildings under the Mana Badi-Nadu Nedu programme soon, and to monitor and provide progress details about it. The MEOs and headmasters are looking after these works," said Uppara Veeranna, MEO-1, and Kummara Chandra Sekhar, headmaster, Elanji Primary School. 

Every block has two MEOs, one looks after academic affairs and the other administrative affairs.

"We have inspected the scheme's functioning in 46 of the total 50 schools. No irregularities have come to our notice. There are no complaints either," MEO-2 Vuddula Mallikarjuna tells 101Reporters.

"There is a possibility of completing construction of cooking sheds and storerooms before December. We have made requests to the district education officer in this regard. Under Nadu Nedu, all works will be completed in six months. After that, everything will be fine, from classroom to toilet. There is no corruption in the utilisation of funds as every detail has to be uploaded online," Mallikarjuna says.

Devagiri school comes under Bandur panchayat, whose welfare assistant Chirutala Pruthvi says he checks the quality of the meals at least thrice a week. 

"The policewoman on duty also checks randomly. So far, no irregularities or complaints have come to our notice," he says.

Andhra Pradesh Food Commission Chairman Chitta Vijaya Prasad Reddy conducted random inspections in Anantapur district two months ago and expressed satisfaction on the scheme's implementation.

The 11th AP JRM report (Andhra Pradesh Joint Review Mission Report on Mid-day Meal Scheme in Visakhapatnam and East Godavari for 2018-19) published on the website of Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman (PM POSHAN) had observed 14 good practices, highlighted nine areas of concern and made 12 recommendations for the scheme's effective implementation.  

(Paul Babu is an Andhra Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.) 

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