India's mid-day meal scheme, the world's most ambitious free school feeding programme, resumed in April after a two-year hiatus during the pandemic. But re-starting the scheme is proving to be a challenge for many schools, reports Astha Rajvanshi.
With the closure of schools, millions of children who relied on free meals went hungry during the pandemic.
In January, Alfisha returned to Shankarwadi Mumbai Public School two years after the COVID pandemic forced schools across India to shut down.
The 13-year-old was excited to reunite with her friends and teachers, but most of all, she looked forward to lunchtime when she could finally eat a free, hot meal.
"My mother is sick, so she can't always make lunch for me and my siblings," she said.
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But the meals, which are distributed under a massive government scheme, didn't resume until early April, leaving Alfisha hungry and disappointed f
But the pandemic has increased these vulnerabilities, particularly in rural and slum settlements, where access to services and opportunities for employment is scarce.
o plug the gap in government provisions, many NGOs and self-help groups are stepping in to distribute the meals themselves, often leading to mixed, uneven results.
At Shankarwadi in Mumbai, for example, some students receive free meals through the 'Teach for India' programme, which partners with government schools across Maharashtra through private investment.
Others rely on their teachers to buy them lunch.
Irfan Anjum, a government school teacher who has taught at the school for over 12 years, says mid-day meals are "a present from god" for his students.
In his class of 26, at least eight to 10 students don't bring lunch from home daily or carry any money to buy food.
"These kids come from very impoverished backgrounds," he explained. "So many of them go hungry when the meals aren't distributed."
Since the school reopened, often the 49-year-old teacher has bought samosas or sweets for his class from the local vendor.
"The children start crying when they can't bear the hunger any longer," he said. "I feel like it's my duty to feed them."
Mr Parajuli said the challenges can only be solved when the federal government works with state governments to make sure the meals reach the children regularly and in time.
"There needs to be some hand-holding," he said.