NEW DELHI: The research, published in journal Nature Communications on Monday, suggest a potential pathway through which school feeding programmes may have inter-generational effects on child nutrition outcomes.
The researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the US noted that India is home to the highest number of undernourished children and the largest school feeding programme in the world -- the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme.
However, long-term benefits of the scheme on nutrition are unknown.
The researchers used nationally representative data on mothers and their children from 1993 to 2016 to assess whether MDM supports inter-generational improvements in child linear growth.
They found that investments made in school meals in previous decades were associated with improvements in future child linear growth.
"Our findings suggest that intervening during the primary school years can make important contributions to reducing future child stunting, particularly given the cumulative exposure that is possible through school feeding programmes," said study co-author Suman Chakrabarti from the University of Washington in the US.
The findings also show that school meals may contribute to education, later fertility decisions, and access to health care, reducing the risk of undernutrition in the next generation, the researchers said.
"School feeding programmes such as India's MDM scheme have the potential for stimulating population-level stunting reduction as they are implemented at scale and target multiple underlying determinants of undernutrition in vulnerable groups," said study co-author Samuel Scott from IFPRI.
Study co-author, Harold Alderman from IFPRI, noted that findings from previous evaluations of India's MDM scheme have shown a positive association with beneficiaries' school attendance, learning achievement, hunger and protein-energy malnutrition, and resilience to health shocks such as drought.
All of these may have carryover benefits to children born to mothers who participated in the programme, he said.
Further research is required to understand whether improving the quality or quantity of meals provided and extending the programme beyond primary school might further enhance its benefits, the researchers added.
The MDM scheme, initiated by the central government in 1995, was intended to cover all government schools under the National Programme of Nutritional Support for Primary Education, the authors of study wrote.
Due to institutional challenges, only a few states scaled up the programme immediately, they said.
According to the researchers, data from 1999 show that only 6 per cent of all girls aged 6-10 years received mid-day meals in school.