Twenty-two children died and dozens more were hospitalized soon after eating a free school lunch of rice, lentils, soybeans and potatoes in Gandamal village, 80 kilometers north of the state capital of Petna in eastern India. The children were between the ages of 5 and 12.
The food was believed to have been tainted with insecticide, and may not have been properly washed before it was cooked in the school kitchen, according to one official.School authorities stopped serving the food immediately when some children started vomiting.
The sick children were first rushed to a local hospital and then to Patna for treatment. In addition to the 22 who died, another 25 children and a school cook were being treated in the hospital.
An official in charge of the free meal program at the school has been suspended, and a case of criminal negligence has been registered against the school headmistress.
According to one official, a preliminary investigation indicated the food contained an organophosphate used as an insecticide on rice and wheat crops. He said the grain was apparently not washed before it was served at the school.
But several local villagers told the Associated Press the problem was with the soybeans and potatoes, not the grain. Children who had not eaten the side dish of soybeans and potatoes were fine, even though they had eaten the rice and lentils.
State official Abhijit Sinha said investigators have seized the cooked food and kitchen utensils. “Whether it was a case of negligence or was intentional, we will only know once the inquiry has been conducted,” he said.
India’s school nutrition program is one of the world’s biggest, covering some 120 million school children across the country. The program aims to give the nation’s poor children at least one hot meal per day. The government says nearly half of India’s children suffer from malnutrition.