New Delhi: The clock strikes one o’clock, it’s lunch time and 6-year-old Asma (name changed) from Kasinathpur in West Bengal, is eagerly waiting for her favorite meal comprising khichdi with vegetables, which she gets to savour every Thursday during lunch hour, at school. Access to a scrumptious and nutritious meal is not just a Thursday motivation, but NGO Smile Foundation’s way to bring tiny tots to a play school. NGO Smile Foundation works with a mission to empower underprivileged children, youth and women through relevant education, innovative healthcare and market-focused livelihood programmes. The objective behind offering a meal is to inculcate good sanitation and hygiene practices from the formative years while providing them atleast one nutritious meal a day.
The concept might sound familiar to government’s mid-day meal scheme under which every child studying in primary and upper primary classes in government and government-aided schools gets free, nutritious meal. Whereas, Smile Foundation’s free meal model is a part of its national level programme ‘Mission Education’ committed to providing basic education and healthcare to underprivileged children. As part of its Mission Education programme, Smile Foundation implements a variety of intervention and development projects in different public, and private schools.
Also Read: What Ails India’s Mid-Day Meal Programme?
Smile Foundation’s educational initiatives include pre-school (3-6 years), formal education (3-18 years), non-formal and bridge education (6-18 years non-school going and/or dropouts) and remedial education (6-18 years school going).
As part of the programme, the team has Mission Education Centres. Explaining the concept of Mission Education Centre, Gargi Kapoor, National Manager of the Mission Education programme at Smile Foundation, says,
Every Mission Education (ME) centre may or may not have nutrition support. Since we are focused towards providing educational support, we often work with government and in government schools we already have mid-day meal scheme. We run majorly three kinds of ME centres which function like any other school – formal, non-formal and remedial centres. While formal centres run in accordance with state board curriculum, informal centres are affiliated with the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). At remedial centres students get extra educational support to remain in their respective schools – government or private. Apart from this, we have early childhood learning centres commonly known as playway schools or pre-school for children belonging to the age group of 3-6 years.
Depending on the requirement of a public or private school, Smile Foundation intervenes. While some schools might need smart boards, other may require qualified teachers. Providing nutrition support is one such intervention one by Smile Foundation together with the help of private donors.
NDTV visited Smile Foundation’s Shishumon Learning Centre in Kashinathpur, which is basically a pre-school for children belonging to the age group of 3-6 years, catering to 75 children. When we reached, students were being served lunch and later given a handwashing lesson.
This particular centre has been supporting the education and health of children for over three years now. Here we are preparing them for school while focusing on their well-being through sanitation, hygiene practices, awareness and regular health check-ups. We have a fixed weekly lunch menu and sometimes, on special request of children, we provide fruit cakes, ladoo, biscuits and other snacks, says Gargi Kapoor.
ME that addresses the issues of hunger and education majorly benefits underprivileged children, whose parents either work as a daily wage earner or farmer or take up odd jobs like auto driver, assisting a carpenter, bus conductor, among others. Women are usually housewives and only a handful work as a domestic helper or artisans.
The community we are addressing is needy; students here often come on an empty stomach. But with this programme, they get atleast one nutritious meal, it is a step towards eradicating hunger. Also, nutrition is an important aspect in helping children in continuing their education, says Gargi Kapoor.
How nutrition and the right amount of guidance has helped children is evident with commendable change in Asma’s mental and physical health. It is hard for Asma’s father, sole bread winner for a family of seven, to provide a nutritious meal to Asma and other family members. But since her enrollment in ME centre, she has been getting food rich in nutrients regularly and the prospect of a tasty and healthy meal has increased her motivation to attend classes regularly.
This is the story of the majority of ME centres providing educational and nutritional support in 22 Indian states and union territories benefitting over 47,000 children. In West Bengal alone, six ME centres offer nutritional support, benefitting 975 children. The team aims to expand their intervention in the field of eradicating malnutrition, hunger, improve retention rate in schools, through sensitisation and nutrition support.