I visit Pequeno Seareiro, a daycare and kindergarten on the edges of a favela in Sao Paulo. It’s about nine in the morning, but I’m bleary eyed from having landed in the city only five hours ago. The school principal kindly offers me hot coffee, but it isn’t the beverage that jolts me out of my sleep deprived stupor. It is the school’s kitchen.
This is a public school, catering mostly to children from low-income families, many living in the nearby favela. And yet, the school kitchen is spacious, spotless and modern, almost like in a high-end restaurant. It’s a warm and welcoming space, full of smells of fresh food being cooked. This kitchen provides meals for kids at the school as part of Brazil’s national school feeding program (PNAE), which feeds about 42 million children every year. Depending on their age, children at this school get between three to five meals at the school—infants and toddlers receive more meals than older kids. The federal government and the local municipality pay for the meals.
The kitchen is located centrally in the school building, roughly half-way between two long corridors. Before I walk in, a staff member hands me a white head cap, a requirement for anyone entering the kitchen. From the door, I can see three women, all dressed in white and wearing white head caps, busy cooking the day’s meals. The kitchen walls are lined with wide counters. One of the cooks stands at the counter, cutting sausages into little pieces for the toddlers. Another woman is at the giant gas stove in the center of the room, stir-frying thin slices of beef and tomatoes. The third cook washes carrots and tomatoes in the big metal sink.
At the far end of the room are shelves stacked with fresh fruit. Christini Kojhi Golin, a 29-year-old nutritionist employed by the city, pulls out a big, plastic crate filled with bananas. Next to the crate are large papayas. Part of Golin’s job is to monitor schools like this to make sure the food they serve is fresh and according to standards set by the government.
Brazil’s school feeding program is considered one of the best in the world. So I’d come prepared to be impressed. But I hadn’t expected this level of quality and care in food served at schools. The only school kitchens I was familiar with until then were those in public schools in India, often attended by the poorest of children. In 2014, I visited a few Indian schools, also for a reporting project funded by the Pulitzer Center. India’s free school lunch program feeds 120 million children and is impressive. But the school kitchens are far from it.
Visit a public school in an Indian village and you may not even see a kitchen. Food is often cooked on a wood or kerosene stove in a corner of the school courtyard. If there is a kitchen, it is often small, bare and not the most hygienic. Many schools don’t even have a room to store the ingredients for school meals. Cases of kids getting sick from eating food contaminated with bugs and pebbles are common. And in a tragic incident, 23 kids died in a school in the Indian state of Bihar three years ago after eating food contaminated with pesticides. The school principal had stored the ingredients in her home, right next to farm tools and pesticides. It was an accident waiting to happen.
Walking through the school kitchen at CEI Pequeno Seareiro that morning, and later in other schools in Brazil, I couldn’t help but think of those 23 children in India, poisoned by food they ate in their own school. Granted, it was a freak accident. But it was an accident facilitated by shortcomings of the program. That is, an absence of kitchen and storage facility.
The more schools I visited in Brazil, the more unacceptable the situation in India seemed. I found myself asking this again and again: ‘Why can’t India do better?’
After all Brazil and India are similar in many ways. Members of BRICS (the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, all fast-growing countries), they are both important emerging economies. And yet, Brazil has done so much better in eradicating extreme poverty, reducing poverty by almost 50 percent in the past decade. The country has reduced levels of child hunger and malnutrition. The school feeding program and school kitchens have helped in that process.
India too has made progress. But, most recent data show that even today 30 percent of children in the country are still underweight. India’s school feeding program has indeed helped reduce severe hunger in the poorest communities, but whether it has improved nutritional levels is an open question. No doubt, the program’s accomplishments are remarkable. It has successfully brought millions of children to enroll in schools, especially girls. These are children who might otherwise have opted out or dropped out of school.
But instead of improving things, the new Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cut funding to feed infants and children at government run day care centers. These centers are already feeling the pinch and children are going hungry in places. The government has also cut funding for the free school lunch program. It is too early to know the full impact of these cuts, but health experts and food rights activists are worried it will only increase hunger and malnutrition.
Poverty, hunger and malnutrition are big, cumbersome problems. But they aren't impossible to tackle, as Brazil has shown. Perhaps it is time for India to look to it for inspiration and lessons. And one simple place to start could be the country’s outstanding school kitchens.