Totally free or subsidized school meal programmes are offered in schools almost in every country of the world, and there are so many countries that offer school meals totally free of cost to all school children who go to state run schools for compulsory education. Our neighboring country India is running the largest school meal programme of the world. India’s midday meal scheme is the largest free school meal programme in the world that serves 120,000,000 children in over 1,265,000 schools and Education Guarantee Scheme centers; it is the largest of its kind in the world. Indian people and society have reaped so many benefits from this programme, enrollment and attendance in schools has significantly improved, malnutrition has decreased and its ranking in world hunger index has also improved. Even though hunger is still prevalent at a large scale in India, children’s malnutrition, stunted growth issues are showing signs of improvement, number of out of school children has also decreased.

In terms of combating child poverty, hunger and deprivation from education Pakistan is faring much worse than India, our country ranks 106 out of 119 countries around the world on the global hunger index, this means Pakistan is better than just 16 countries in the whole world, in South Asia only Afghanistan has more hunger and greater number of children with stunted growth. The most alarming figure is that related to child stunting, as 45% children face problem of impaired or stunted growth due to poor nutrition. Situation in areas with low human development index is even bleaker, Tharparkar district of Sindh, for example remained in headlines for deaths of children due to malnutrition and preventable diseases. Number of out of school children is yet another reason for some serious soul searching for our leaders; a staggering number of 25 million children are out of school in 2018 in Pakistan.

Children in Pakistan deserve a better life, the present dismal state of health and availability of food puts not only their well-being in jeopardy but it can deprive them of their right to life. This situation needs to be changed, because our future depends on how we feed and educate our children. Looking at our region, our next door neighbour India is providing its 120 million children free meals in schools, some other countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal have their own school feeding programmes, children in Pakistan, at least in the  most impoverished areas desperately need to have a government sponsored school meal programme. Such a programme is one of the many necessary measures required for improving the lives of many millions of Pakistani children. Here are the top five reasons why Pakistan must have a free or partially funded school meal programme for school children at least in the most poverty stricken areas of the country.

Hunger and under-nourishment problems of millions of school children will be effectively addressed: According to World Food Programme 60% of Pakistan’s population is food insecure. Children form a huge chunk of this food insecure population and along with women the children are most vulnerable to food insecurity, hunger and undernourishment. A school meal programme can be a great support to these children, adequate nutritious food, at an age when children need it the most for their growing bodies, is very important for their healthy lives.    

24 million out of school children will be incentivized to attend schools: Such a programme has a great potential in bringing millions of out of school children to schools. These children are deprived of education because of poverty, parental neglect and societal apathy. The main hurdle that keeps these children out of school is poverty and this hurdle can be removed once a large scale benevolently funded school feeding programme is initiated by the government. We can no longer afford to let such an enormous number of children to remain deprived of their right to education; a school meal programme can be a step to end this deprivation.

This programme can be instrumental in achieving social security for street children: According to a news report, there are 1.5 million children who live on streets in abject conditions without shelter or parental care and without any access to education and secure source of food. They are vulnerable to all forms of bad influences, street crimes and abuses. They are the most defenseless of all the Pakistani children and a free meal programme can be tailored to suit their needs, even though free food is not the only thing they need, but if administered in a targeted manner this can prove instrumental in the emancipation of these lost children from the vicious cycle of abject deprivation and abuse.

Child labour can be eliminated: Pakistan can fare well in combating the evil of child labour which is rampant in every part of the country. A federally funded school meal programme can equally be beneficial in reducing the vulnerabilities of thousands of street children in many cities. Parents belonging to the disadvantaged strata of society will feel encouraged to send their children to schools because part of their worries will be removed, they will have some degree of contentment that their children won’t go hungry at school.

School meals have educative value for children: Having meals at schools can actually be a learning activity, children will learn about healthy diet, table manners and discipline. Children can also be taught hygiene and can gain knowledge about nutritional value of different food items. Foods with rich nutrients and age appropriate calories can help children learn better and it can improve their academic performance.

It is time for Pakistani parents, teachers and civil society at large, to speak up for their children; it is time to call upon the government to increase its expenditures and investments in nation’s children. Our children have a right to lead a healthy and happy life, and they have a right to education that allows them to develop sound minds in sound bodies. An adequately funded and meticulously monitored national school meal programme can be a very effective tool in addressing the pressing issues of child hunger, undernourishment and educational deprivation.