Midday meal goes organic-Savvy Soumya Misra

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published Published on May 9, 2014   modified Modified on May 9, 2014

Cunoor (Tamil Nadu): The holidays have begun but children arrive at the Denalai Upper Primary School, giggling and whispering excitedly. They have come to proudly flaunt their organic kitchen garden where they grow vegetables and herbs for the school's midday meal.

Nestled in the Nilgiris, the school has 38 students. Most of them belong to Denalai, a Baduga village. The Badugas are a tribal community, primarily cultivators, who are known to have moved from neighbouring Karnataka to the Nilgiris.

Of the 38 students, 28 are part of an Eco Club that zealously nurtures the kitchen garden. They have learnt organic farming from Sivakumar, the ‘Eco Club Sir,' as the children, who are mostly between nine and 13 years old, fondly call him.

Sivakumar works for The Earth Trust, a non-profit that assists tribal communities in the Nilgiris. One of their projects is to set up Eco Clubs in schools. Although Tamil Nadu has mandated that each school should have an Eco Club or a National Green Corps, these Eco Clubs are independent entities initiated by The Earth Trust.

The Denalai Upper Primary School is one of 15 government schools in Cunoor block where The Earth Trust managed to convince principals to grow their own food for the midday meal.

The Midday Meal Scheme was launched on 15 August 1995 to tackle malnutrition among children, increase enrolment and reduce the dropout rate. Two-thirds of the cost of the scheme is borne by the centre and one-third by the state.

According to the scheme, a stipulated amount of foodgrains, vegetables, pulses (and eggs in Tamil Nadu) have to be served to the children. While the centre, through the Food Corporation of India, supplies the foodgrains, the state provides pulses, egg, oil and condiments.

Some states have decentralised this arrangement and now food, barring foodgrains, can be bought from the local market. But since funds for the midday meal are sometimes delayed, and the prices of vegetables have soared, children end up eating a boring meal of rice, plain sambhar with little or no vegetables and an egg.

The students eagerly explain how they have tackled this problem. Their kitchen garden has three terraced patches. These are divided into 15 plots of five by three feet each. A profusion of vegetables is grown - cabbage, white and red raddish, turnip, beetroot, cauliflower, green leafy vegetables, carrot, coriander, curry leaves and a few medicinal herbs.

The beds are neatly bordered with marigold plants. "This is to prevent any pest attack. Marigold, you see, is a natural repellant," the children respond in chorus. Sivakumar says, with multiple cropping chances of pest attacks are minimal. They do have to guard the plots against the occasional simian attack. "Bed nets are useful sometimes to keep the monkeys away," says one of the students.

Infused with vegetables, the plain sambhar they ate every day has now become tastier. "The kitchen garden is not likely to meet the complete requirements of the midday meal," says Sivakumar. "But our data suggests that it meets at least 66 per cent of the school's requirements at extremely nominal rates." Besides, the kitchen garden ensures that the children eat nutritious, pesticide-free food.

The organic fertilisers and pesticides used are prepared by the students with Sivakumar's gentle assistance. The Eco Club makes three types of bio pesticides, using materials like cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, neem, garlic and so on.

The school has a small vermicomposting pit which serves as its organic manure supply centre. All the waste from the school is dumped into the pit, mixed every now and then and sprayed with cow dung. The organic manure is ready within a few weeks. Water is not a problem. The Earth Trust provides seeds and training at regular intervals and bears the cost of land preparation, input preparation and the initial labour.

These young enthusiastic farmers have sparked an organic kitchen garden movement in their localities. They have developed small plots in their own homes. In fact, the school's kitchen garden ignited interest in children from other schools. In the same village, another small plot is being taken care of by a bunch of 13-year-olds.

They are students of a private school a little farther away from the village. "Though our school has a bigger campus than the government school we don't have an Eco Club or plots allotted for kitchen gardens," says Ritik Kanan. "And we don't have midday meals either. But we wanted to grow vegetables like the ones this school grows." Lanky Sivakumar stepped in to help.

The villagers gave in to the enthusiasm of the children and the plot was given to them. These budding farmers grow zucchini, beetroot, cabbage and green leafy vegetables, organically. They, too, have learnt to make their own bio pesticides.

Some houses in the community have their own vermicomposting pits. The manure is handed over to the children who add it to their kitchen garden. They too have a composting pit on site where households can dump their biodegradable waste.

"There are fields close by that use chemical fertilisers and pesticides. To safeguard our kitchen garden, we have planted shrubs and bushes on its boundaries. We have tried to make a canopy with some creeper vegetables as well," says Monisha. Then there is the customary ring of marigold flowers.

The work is divided. The students tend to their field regularly after school, on weekends and holidays. For the 15 children who labour on the field, the produce is free. The rest of the village has to pay. "We have been trained to market our produce. We keep a tab on the market prices of vegetables and since ours are organic we sell at a premium of Rs 5. And it gets picked up too," says Kanan with a toothy grin.

The parents are more than happy. "Pesticides are poison and we don't mind paying extra. At a time when children are moving away from farming, this is a good initiative to bring them closer to the farm and their food," said a parent, noticing the frenzy of activity.

As children mill around Sivakumar, he admits that getting them excited about farming is easier than convincing schoolteachers and principals. But the effort is well worth it. Not only do children get more nutritious meals, they also become progressive farmers.


The author gathered this information as part of research for Greenpeace India
CivilSocietyOnline.com, April, 2014, http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/pages/Details.aspx?540 


CivilSocietyOnline.com, April, 2014, http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/pages/Details.aspx?540

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