Underpaid, undervalued, and overworked: The working conditions of cooks in India's school lunch programme

School feeding programmes employ more than 4 million people globally and have the potential to contribute to the realization of multiple Sustainable Development Goals, including decent work and reducing inequalities. However, the working conditions and experiences of workers in these programmes have received little attention from academics and policy-makers alike. Consequently, it is currently unclear what the impacts of the employment generated are and whether this employment reduces or perpetuates inequalities. This article examines the extent to which school feeding programmes can generate beneficial employment by examining the experiences of cooks in the world's largest school lunch programme, India's Midday Meal Scheme. The article focuses on five key areas: who is employed; their pay; their workload; their access to social protection; and the effects of privatization. To examine these five areas, data from three sources are combined: primary data collected in Rajasthan; state-level secondary data; and the analysis of national-level documents. The findings show that national policy creates a system in which cooks in the Midday Meal Scheme are underpaid, undervalued, and overworked. These working conditions are underpinned by a series of assumptions and narratives which are all too common in perceptions of care work: that the work is unskilled, not time consuming, and motivated by altruism. The state's lack of regard for these workers is evident in the growing privatization of the scheme. Policy implications  Overall, the findings show that policy on school feeding programmes, including those in India, needs to ensure that those working in the scheme are treated as employees and receive sufficient pay and benefits. Providing decent work in these programmes has the potential to not only reduce poverty and inequalities but also to improve the implementation of school feeding programmes.