Kamrul Hasan, who had been suffering from chronic malnutrition, was admitted to Bamna Government Primary School in Islampur in 2016. Now he is a student of class-IV and at the same time a healthy boy.
It was a school-feeding programme that made it possible for the students of the school to be free of hunger and health problems, said Ahsan Habib, Headmaster of Bamna Government Primary School.
According to Kamrul Hasan, he has four brothers and a sister. His father is a day labourer in Chinaduli union. It is very difficult for his father to provide three meals a day to the children at home. The family still bears the effects of hunger.
"I get meals at noon everyday from the school. Two of my brothers are also studying here. The arrangement thus reduces the pressure on my father," he said.
Kamrul is fortunate as the government has a feeding programme for him and his schoolmates in his school. But that cannot ignore the fact that there are yet millions of school-aged children in the country suffering from malnutrition, with some of them even suffering from hunger.
According to the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science of Dhaka University, 40 percent of school-aged (6-12) children still suffer from malnutrition.
Professor Dr Md Akhtaruzzaman, at the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science, told The Business Standard that a child aged between 6 and 8 needs 1600 calories, 7-9 needs 1950 calories and 9-11 needs 2200 calories.
"It is a calculation on the basis of national standards and the government uses our studies," Prof Akhtaruzzaman said.
"Our study shows that there are 60 percent school-aged children who get appropriate calories for their daily life. I think the government's initiative will help reduce malnutrition among school-aged children," he said.
Ahsan Habib, Headmaster of Bamna Government Primary School, mentioned that a total of 288 students were in his school, with all of them getting meals every day since 2014. The students attend classes happily. Before the meal programme commenced, it was hard to keep the students in class. Malnutrition had rendered most of them weak. Now they are very spontaneous in class participation as a result of the school feeding programme, he said.
Like Kamrul, another Class V student, Kamal Uddin, attends school every day. Playing with his friends and taking meals with them during tiffin break are what he enjoys a great deal.
"I love to go to school because the teachers teach us and give us food. Now I love to go to school," said Kamal, who studies at Ruhita Government Primary School in Bamna upazila of Barguna.
In Bangladesh, where the school-feeding programme is being conducted on a limited scale, 3 million primary schoolchildren in over 100 upazilas of 29 districts have been accommodated under the programme, primary and mass education ministry officials have said.
Children are given cooked meals only in three upazilas, while vitamin-enriched biscuits are served in other upazilas. They get 75 gram biscuits containing 300 calories under arrangements assisted by the World Food Programme.
As cooked meals have proved more effective than biscuits, the government has outlined plans to provide cooked meals in primary schools, beginning in January next year.
By 2023 the government will provide meals to 1.4 crore students in all 66,000 government primary schools, ministry sources said.
It may be recalled that the cabinet on August 19 this year approved a National School Meal Policy 2019.
Primary school students in three upazilas (Bamna of Barguna, Islampur of Jamalpur and Lama of Bandarban) have been getting cooked meals since 2013.
Cooks and class teachers serve the food twice if there are two shifts -- one around 11:45am at the end of the first shift and another at 1:30pm in the tiffin period. In the case of single shifts, school meals are served once during tiffin break.
The school feeding project engages with the local community, especially women, who cook the food as well as monitor hygiene requirements and supply vegetables needed for cooking khichuri.
A committee comprising teachers, guardians, school managing committee members and representatives from NGO monitors the project.
Under the project, WFP provides the salaries of cooks, with one cook being responsible for every 60 students.
From next month the government will start distributing school meals in 14 more upazilas.
"The government's target is to provide meals in at least 30 per cent of schools across the country by 2023. And by 2030 all students of primary schools will get meals. I think it will be possible for the government to implement the plan," said Professor Md Abdul Mannan, Assistant Project Director of the School Feeding Programme.
"Once the School Feeding Programme is implemented, children will not suffer from malnutrition anymore," added Abdul Mannan.
Md Nurunnabi, Senior Assistant Secretary of the Primary and Mass Education Ministry, told The Business Standard that the ministry wants to ensure children' presence in the schools. At the same time, it emphasizes nutrition for them.
"The ministry is determined to continue the School Feeding Programme in order to make a healthy nation," he said.
"We will ensure 30 percent of the students' daily calories," he said.
The government spends Tk 474.9 crore a year distributing biscuits and meals among schools in more than 100 upazilas.
The school-feeding programme began in 2002 as an emergency response to the needs of schoolchildren among flood-affected families in Jashore district as a measure towards bringing them back to school. The plan proved successful and has gradually expanded.
An evaluation report of the International Food Policy Research Institute found that following the introduction of the school-feeding programme, school enrolment rose by 14.2 percent and attendance increased by 1.3 percent days a month.
In contrast, the drop-out rate declined by 7.5 percent. Academic performance also marked an improvement, with test scores increasing by 15.7 percentage points.
According to the World Food Programme, vitamin A deficiency affects one child in five, and vitamin B12 deficiency is detected in one child in three. Under-nutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies are also prevalent among adolescent girls.
The theme for World Food Day this year is "Healthy diets for a zero hunger world."
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations believes countries need to take initiatives to have healthy diets accessible to everyone. Nutrition, it notes, should be ensured right at the school level.
Of 52 lower-middle-income countries ($1026 to $4035), 34, including Bangladesh, have government-supervised school feeding programmes or are transitioning from relying on external support to making internal arrangements.
FAO believes good nutrition education helps children to become "nutritionally literate" and they can educate their families about the value of nutritious foods.
The UN agency wants governments to have nutrition guidelines and standards for school-feeding and to monitor closely their implementation by engaging parents.
FAO surveyed 33 low and medium income countries this year and found only 13 countries maintaining nutrition standards. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is the lone country to have upheld such standards, according to the FAO report "Nutrition guidelines and standards for school meals", published in May 2019.
FAO encourages primary schools in engaging children in gardening in schoolyards to help them learn about growing vegetables and fruits. Mothers volunteer in cooking meals for children at school.
The initiatives have resulted in success in Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Russia and the Philippines, and could be replicated in low and middle income countries, where micronutrient deficiency is still high among children, the UN food agency says.