"The parents of these children live in abject poverty. Most can't even provide one healthy meal to their kids. It's a great relief to them to see their child hale and hearty due to organic school food."
In 2001, when Narendra Chouhan was appointed as the headmaster of Vayadpur Primary School, located in Vadodara, Gujarat, he made two critical observations.
One, the dropout rate was very high, and two, most of the students who attended school hailed from impoverished families in the village, and their biggest temptation to attend school was the free mid-day meal.
“But, the mid-day meal served here was quite bland, and did not do much to ensure their health and nutrition,” recalls Chouhan.
Looking for a solution, he stumbled upon the half-acre fallow land surrounding the school building, covered in hedges and decided to grow vegetables there.
“I wanted to provide the students with a healthy and delicious platter every day for lunch. I started organic farming on my own, and gradually, the students also started helping out,” shares Chouhan.
17 years have passed since, and today, the zealous headmaster, supported by a battalion of enthusiastic kids, grows vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, cauliflowers, cabbages, radish, carrots, bottle gourd as well as leafy greens like spinach, fenugreek (methi) and coriander.
“We use zero chemicals in our school’s ‘kitchen garden’. I procure all organic fertilisers and pesticides by myself. Some of the village farmers have also been influenced by my methods and are experimenting with organic farming,” he informs.
The yummy lunches are healthy too!
From Palak Paneer to Methi Thepla to a healthy salad spread every day—the scrumptious mid-day meals of Vayadpur Primary School are now well-known in the taluk.
“Parents often say that the students now rush to school every morning, wondering what’s there for lunch today,” Chouhan heartily shares. He adds how health problems have drastically gone down in the children over the years. “In these past 17 years, children have become healthier and more proactive in class, in my experience.”
Till date, Chouhan has yielded over 8000 kgs of fresh vegetables in the school farm.
Students actively take part in farming
It is not just the steaming plates of fresh food, but the fun in farming also that drives the kids of Vayadpur daily to school. They diligently participate in all organic farming activities—from sowing the seeds with their tiny hands to mastering the unique harvesting techniques for each type of vegetable.
Sometimes, if there are surplus vegetables, Chouhan makes sure that the students carry those back home to their families.
“The parents of these children live in abject poverty. Most of them cannot even provide a healthy daily meal to their kids. It is a great relief to them that their children are all hale, hearty and full thanks to the school food. And what more, we are doing the entire activity for free through a sustainable approach,” Chouhan asserts.
He emphasises on the need for these students to learn to farm the organic way since most of them belong to farming families and can introduce scientific principles to their fields in future.
Aside from the fresh vegetables and sumptuous mid-day meals, Chouhan also donates uniforms, stationery and shoes to his students free of cost. He hopes such endeavours will attract more children to education and provide them with a chance of a better future.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)