‘Asha Tai, What’s for lunch?’ Dilip Unnikrishnan

It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon and Asha Tai is finally done washing the utensils that she uses to prepare lunch for the 150-odd children at the government school in Lonsavli. It normally doesn’t take a lot of time but since her co-worker is on leave, she has to do all the chores in the tiny 20 square meter kitchen located next to the school playground. Short and lean, the 60-year-old mother of three has been working as a cook at the school kitchen for the past year. “I stopped going to the farm a year ago and started spending time at home. It was then that Principal Madam approached me and asked me to cook for the children in the school for Rs 1000 per month. Since I had nothing much to do at home, I agreed.”

Asha Tai

Maharashtra was one of the 12 states that introduced a mid-day meal scheme in government-run schools in 1990-91 to tackle malnourishment among children in rural areas. The Central Government implemented the scheme on a national level in 1995 that led to centralised nutritional norms being set. Cooks were employed from the same village to ensure local cuisine is served to children. It also helped provide employment to women via self-help groups.

“Cooking for 150 children of different age groups and different likes is very difficult. You have to strike the perfect balance. I struggled initially, but I soon managed to understand their food habits,” says Asha Tai. The two cooks prepare a variety of local Marathi food for lunch at the school.

Assembly at the Lonsavli Primary School

Shouts of 'Peas bhaaji!' (peas curry), 'Peas rice!', 'Daal-bhaaji' (lentils and vegetable curry) can be heard from the kids when asked what their favourite dishes are.

“It is a good job and along with decent pay, I get to see the smiles on the children’s faces after I serve them their favourite food. The only negative is the firewood chulha. The smoke makes breathing difficult and leaves me teary eyed all the time.” The school has applied for a gas stove which is supposed to will arrive in due time.

“The school ensures that we get the required quantity of food materials daily. There hasn’t been a day when a child has gone hungry here, nor has anyone here fallen sick after eating food cooked here,” says Asha Tai beaming with pride.

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Dilip Unnikrishnan

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