The Mid-Day Meal Scheme in India is the largest school-based feeding program in the world, serving 20 million children every day. It was originally introduced in 1925 as a means to provide free meals to poor and disadvantaged children, with meals that provide a range of 450-700 energy calories and 12-20 grams of protein.
Despite alleviating hunger (though malnutrition certainly remains a problem in India), the program suffers from poor hygiene, and has been caught in multiple scams. Recently, the program’s lack of sanitation resulted in the death of 23 students, who became ill after ingesting cooking oil contaminated with insecticides.
The food poisoning occurred in Dharmasati, a village in India’s eastern state of Bihar, which is 80km (50 miles) north of the state capital, Patna.
A total of 47 children, all between the ages of 4 and 12, fell ill after partaking in the program-offered lunch on July 16, 2013. Currently, 31 children have been moved to Patna Medical College Hospital for further treatment.
The chemical class organophosphate contaminated the cooking oil used to prepare the meal. The oil was bought by the school’s headmistress from a grocery store owned by her husband, and was found to contain “very toxic” levels of monocrotophos, which is an organophosphate pesticide used in agriculture. Organo-phosphorus compounds, while prevalent in the insecticides used to grow vegetables, rice, and other crops, are also used in chemical warfare. Sometimes they are used as nerve gases.
The compounds used in warfare and terrorist attacks are of a higher toxicity level than those used in household insecticides. However, compounds of all levels are easily accessible through common contact. Because of this, organo-phosphorus exposure is often used as a means of suicide. This also means that compounds can cause accidental poisoning fairly quickly, especially within the reach of children.
Since the poisoning, several children have refused to participate in the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. At least four police vehicles were set on fire in reaction as angry parents joined protests against the deaths. The protests also involved the burial of 19 of the victims’ bodies in and around school grounds.
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