Poisoned School Lunch Kills 22 Children — But the Program Must Go On

On Wednesday, students at a public school in the Indian state of Bihar complained that their school lunch didn't taste good. Students complaining about cafeteria food is usually par for the course at any school, but this time, it was a much more serious matter.

Within the hour, dozens of schoolchildren and the cook were suffering from severe stomach pains, diarrhea, and vomiting. Many were rushed to hospitals while parents left work in a panic to pick up their children. By nightfall, 22 of the students had died and the rest are still receiving hospital treatment as of Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, such incidents are far from rare. Just this week, another school lunch in Bihar also sent several kids to the hospital with food poisoning. Nor is this an issue that is unique to India, as cases from both Mexico and Rwanda illustrate. But an incident of this scale, resulting in deaths and not hospitalizations, is a first. How did this happen?

First, obviously, it's the matter of the food itself. Forensic tests on the school lunch have not yet returned, but authorities believe they have found the cause of the sudden illness. The cooking oil bought by the school's headmistress had been stored in a container that had previously held potent insecticides, containing a poison similar to nerve gas. It contaminated the meal so heavily that it took only minutes to take effect.

Some are also accusing the headmistress of cronyism. The school cook, whose two children died by eating the meal, has stated that she told the headmistress that she was concerned about the quality of the oil, but was told to cook with it anyway. The headmistress and her husband have gone on the run since the scandal broke, and police are investigating their whereabouts.

But shouldn't there have been closer monitoring of the food the children are given? Ideally, yes. However, India runs the largest free school lunch program in the world, feeding over 120 million kids daily, and the federal government elicits help from state and local governments to get the job done. While that increases the efficiency of the program, it also increases the amount of corruption involved. There have been countless cases of food or funds from the school lunch program being stolen, with some experts estimating that close to 40% of India's resources dedicated to alleviating food insecurity never reach the intended recipients. It's a problematic program, riddled with corruption.

Despite everything, though, the school lunch program must continue. And that's because these kids have no better options. Nearly 50% of India's children are malnourished, and many of them are working menial labor jobs to help their families stay afloat. Without the free lunch, not only will they not receive one square meal a day, but they also probably won't stay in school. The cost of not feeding the kids is too great to offset.

Some people have questioned why the kids continued eating the lunch when it clearly tasted wrong. The sad answer is that it was likely the only meal they were going to get that day. They were hungry, so they ate.

India needs to face its high rate of corruption, which has created a laundry list of problems for the country. The death of these innocent children due to negligence on the part of the headmistress and regulatory oversight groups is just the latest addition to the never-ending list. Perhaps the deaths of these students will finally be the wake-up call that forces Indians into an outcry against the rampant mismanagement of governmental programs.