April 4, School feeding programs are ubiquitous. The World Food Program estimated that in 2013, 368 million children, or 1 in 5, received a school meal at a total cost of US$ 75 billion. There are two main rationales for this sizable investment. The first is to abate hunger and improve health and nutrition. The second is to improve schooling outcomes.
Evaluating the impact of India’s free school lunch program—which we will refer to by its local moniker, “midday meals”—on learning achievements of primary school children, its proponents argue that free in-school feeding programs have a positive impact on learning through two main channels. First, they encourage enrollment and attendance, both of which afford children the opportunity to learn in the first place. Second, they improve children’s nutritional intake: alleviation of short-term hunger facilitates concentration and improved health and nutritional status leads to better cognition and lower absenteeism due to illness.
However, these positive effects are not self-evident. For one, it is not clear whether improved nutrition or enrollment alone suffice. Presumably complementary teaching inputs are also required in order to promote learning in schools. For another, nutritional benefits stand to question if children come from wealthy families and are already well-nourished, or if school meals lead families to substitute household feeding inputs away from a school-going child towards other family members. In addition to our main treatment effects, we explore each of the issues raised above.
The scale of the intervention is massive: India’s midday meal scheme is the largest school nutrition program in the world. In 2006, it provided lunch to 120 million children in government primary schools on every school day. To put this number in perspective, it accounts for a staggering one third of children globally who, according to the WFP, enjoy school feeding programs.
A 2001 Indian Supreme Court directive ordered Indian states to institute free midday meals in government primary schools. Prior to 2001 only two states, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, had universal public primary school midday meal provision. Over the subsequent five years, however, state governments across India introduced midday meals.
Staggered implementation of the program in primary schools generates variation in the length of exposure to the program based on a child’s birth cohort and state of residence. Children only enjoyed the program to the extent that they were of primary-school going age—6 to 10 years old—and lived in a state which had instituted midday meals in primary school. Hence, the earlier their state introduced the program and the young enough they were at the time, the longer was the child’s potential exposure to midday meals, in this intent-to-treat (ITT) framework.
Data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey, whose goal is to assess the state of education among children in India, has three unique features that are useful for the purpose of this analysis. First, it has remarkably wide geographic coverage, surveying over 200,000 households in each of India’s roughly 580 rural districts. Second, it has been administered annually since 2005. Third, ASER administers learning assessments of basic literacy (reading skills) and numeracy (number recognition and arithmetic skills) to all children aged 5 to 16.
Exposure to midday meals increases students’ learning achievement, albeit at a decreasing rate. Students with up to five years of exposure have reading test scores that are 18% (0.17 standard deviations) higher than students with less than a year of exposure. The corresponding increase for math test scores is a more modest, but still sizable 9% (0.09 standard deviations). .
There are complementarities between teaching- and learning-related classroom inputs, though not with more general schooling infrastructure. And there is limited evidence of intra-household redistribution, suggesting that this in-kind transfer “sticks” to its intended beneficiaries. India’s midday meal scheme is thought to be one of the least expensive in the world. The cost of providing midday meals for the full 5 years of primary school amounts to US$50 per child.
Of course, these costs are likely to be higher in areas which do not enjoy as well-developed a public primary school infrastructure and public food distribution system as India does. But then again, we have said nothing of the potential nutritional and health improvements arising from this intervention, which would only add to the benefits. All in all, this program seems like an excellent investment.
The midday meal program itself has been widely reviewed in policy circles by Indian government and non-government organizations such as the Planning Commission, the National Institute of Public Cooperation & Child Development, and the Centre for Environment and Food Security. These studies are unanimous in their agreement that the midday meal program has helped increasing attendance and enrollment of children.
While these policy reviews are informative, they tend to be descriptive in nature and lack clear identification strategies. A handful of recent studies have examined the effect of midday meals in India on school participation and nutritional outcomes, with more careful attention to identification. In Madhya Pradesh, children with midday meals experienced sizable improvements in nutrient intake and reductions in protein and calorie deficiency. In Andhra Pradesh, midday meals are compensated for the negative effects of drought on nutritional status.