School Lunch Disaster Kills 23 Kids in India–Can it Happen in the US?

A government-sponsored school lunch program in India known as “the Midday Meal Scheme” has been providing safe food for kids since the 1960s. It’s the largest school lunch program in the world. It serves over 120 million children in more than one million schools, and for many Indian children this meal is the day’s only opportunity to fight off hunger. But Indians are calling for action after a recent rash of foodborne illness caused by school lunches, including a single case of contamination where more than 20 children died.

When a story like this makes the news, Americans inevitably begin to wonder about the safety of the food their own kids are eating. But, thanks to FDA regulations and other rules, it’s a little bit different over here.

Poisoned Midday Meals Kill 23 School Kids

On July 16, a cook at a primary school in the Indian state of Bihar noticed a pungent odor coming from the cooking oil. The principal of the school was notified, but the cook was allegedly told to use the oil anyway. By about half an hour after mealtime, more than 45 children had begun feeling ill and were transported to local hospitals. Despite efforts to reverse the effects of the foodborne illness, 23 of the children died as a result of the poisoning.

The source of the deadly outbreak was later discovered to be an organophosphorus pesticide. Indian authorities aren’t yet sure where this chemical came from or how it got into the curry that was served that day. The principal of the school was arrested, and forensic investigators have been attempting to piece together the cause of the tragedy.

Although the poisoning in Bihar is the most outrageous recent example of foodborne illness in Indian schools, several other cases have also raised alarm. In one incident, 50 children became sick after drinking water from a hand-pump outside of a school. In another, a dead lizard found in a pot of food caused almost 80 kids to get sick.

Can Indian Schools Still Be Trusted to Serve Safe Food for Kids?

These incidents are a result of troubles within the program that brings midday meals to so many children in India. The kitchens in Indian schools are understaffed, and inflexible rules determine the days of the week that fresh vegetables must be served, regardless of whether or not they’re accessible to a village on the given day. To meet the guidelines, some villages have been forced to store fresh vegetables without refrigeration for several days.foodborne illness india rice

Coordinating with suppliers is also difficult. Low-quality rice has been a consistent problem, and in some months the supply has been so bad that cooks have taken rice off the menu completely. On top of everything, the government agencies that are tasked with monitoring the Midday Meals program are simply overworked.

But even with the program’s patchwork administration (and the resultant gaps in accountability), there’s no denying that these midday meals are a godsend for kids all over the country. In the poorest regions in India, food safety at home is a non-issue simply because there’s nothing available at mealtime. Research from the Indian Statistical Institute shows that, for about 3 cents a day per child, the program cuts protein, calorie and iron deficiencies by 100%, 30% and 10%, respectively. This is important. Childhood malnutrition can have life-long consequences, and in a region where the effects of drought can be devastating to children, government-sponsored meals really matter.

This series of tragedies shows that providing safe food for kids should be a top priority for the Indian government. Administrators must be held accountable for foodborne illness, and organizational changes need to happen soon. Whatever it takes to ensure that these 120 million children have access to safe, reliable food at times when there aren’t other options, that’s what should be done.

Is Foodborne Illness a Concern For American School Children? 

Here in the states, it’s different, and that should give parents some peace of mind. In the U.S., the quality of school lunches is strictly regulated – in fact, every school that participates in national nutrition programs must be inspected by government agencies twice a year. School kitchens must abide by the same rules that protect us at the grocery store, and most districts are subject to extra safeguards as well.

The main concern about American school lunch? It’s nutrition, and while processed foods, sugary drinks and desserts are becoming less common thanks to recent changes in USDA standards, we’re certainly not out of the woods yet. One in three children in America are overweight, and since obesity kills three times as many people worldwide as malnutrition does, it’s worth our effort to make sure school kids get healthier lunches.

American schools are thinking about that too. In some municipalities, schools are allowed to buy produce from local farms – although here’s where it gets tricky in the U.S. Right now, regulations vary from state to state, and many schools are simply allowed to set their own policies. There’s currently an ongoing debate about how to ensure that we’re serving safe food for kids when schools purchase locally grown produce.

So, parents, we ask you: would additional regulations help? Would you be in favor of a certification system for local farms that do business with schools, or do you believe that local farmers may actually have the edge when it comes to food safety? Or perhaps you have trust in the schools and you think more about food safety at home. Sound off below and let us know what you think!