Prabowo memasak makanan di Cilincing, Jakarta Utara (Kompas/Adhyasta Dirgantara)

Despite the backlash received by President-elect Prabowo for his flagship program Free Nutritious Food (MBG) being extremely amplified on social media, especially among middle and upper class voters in Indonesia, the concept of MBG as an antipoverty policy is actually a common practice worldwide.

Global Child Nutrition Foundation recorded in their 2022 survey, there are 134 countries in the world with beneficiaries of 330 million children from 2020 to 2021 who receive the school meals program. Additionally, based on the World Food Program research (2020, pg. 5), providing free food at school has been proven to increase student attendance and concentration in learning, which ultimately improves student academic performance. This has the potential to generate long-term benefits for the economy through improving the quality of human resources. These policies can help reduce inequality by ensuring that all children, regardless of economic background, have access to good nutrition. Nutritious foods can help prevent malnutrition and nutrition-related diseases, which in turn can reduce the burden on the public health system in the long run.

There are some qualified merits of the MBG program. However, there are also indeed a number of potential loopholes to watch.

Budgetary Challenges: Fiscal Limitation and Corruption

Implementing universal free meals requires a significant budget allocation to cover the costs of food production and distribution, as well as the costs of innovation in production and distribution systems. This is a fiscal challenge, especially in countries with limited fiscal resources. Indonesia is a country that has these limitations. Although the universal free meals policy carries fiscal risks, its long-term social and economic benefits could make it a worthwhile investment. However, we would also argue that the fact that Indonesia has a long history of corruption in distributive politics (Suryaningtyas, 2024) requires us as citizens to be aware of several corruption loopholes that may occur in this policy.

Corruption can permeate any society and policy. However, according to Demeshko et al. (2024),  global food system is a sector comparatively more prone to corruption & has a wider multiplier as the food system will affect not only the consuments, but also undermine the whole food system governance: it threatens health  & food security, leads to environmental degradation, results in economic loss borne by small-medium food & beverages (F&B) businesses, erosion of trust towards the government, and lastly decreased agricultural productivity. Demeshko et al. (2024) records that there are five main types of corruption identified in the global food system: bureaucratic corruption, fraud, bribery, organized crime, and corporate political activity. So, what kind of corruption is Indonesia most prone to?

Patrimonial bureaucracy is a subtle form of corruption that has long defined Indonesia’s “rational bureaucracy”, a concept by Max Weber. Assignments of officials, especially those referred as “street-level bureaucrats” in strategic & beneficial positions based on familial relationships persist. As for fraud, Demeshko et al. (2024) can be a reminder to all of us that indications of corruption need not have to be massive and sensational, it can be in the form of “food fraud”. Reduced quality of the school meals accumulated on a daily basis can amount to a significant total of cash for local officials. On the other hand, bribery that can be done by local businesses by gratifying certain officials with cash in order to win a business deal in providing materials is also an aspect we should collectively monitor. Moreover, we also need to have control over organized crime happening in the food chain, including the intended leakage of subsidized fertilizers for farmers. The crime is usually linked to corporate political activity (CPA) or attempts by business entities to shape policies (Shirodkar et al, 2022). Although it is often seen as a legal action, this activity intends to gain profits privately for the industry. 

Learning from other countries’ experiences with corruption in free meal programs is crucial. A corruption case from Colombia’s school meals program (Keefer and Roseth, 2024) shows us that transparency initiatives often fail if the corrupt individuals hold powerful positions and the corruption victims face multiple challenges to fight collectively. Another case of a free mid-day meal scheme also happens in India where the success of the program is different from state to state. Some states face fraud and mismanagement when implementing the program, while others gain benefits from it (Chatterjee, 2014). 

Free Meals: Not a Top-Down Endeavor

The aforementioned cases also highlight the need for top-down and bottom-up efforts (Keefer and Roseth, 2024; Paltasingh and Bhue, 2022). Effective corruption prevention requires policy mechanisms and grassroots mobilization. Equipping parents with program knowledge and progress, involving different communities in schools in program discussion, enabling parents access to unionize and raise their concerns, and activating formal and informal audit systems are essential strategies. In doing so, multiple cooperation among parent committees, schools, governments, and even third parties, such as suppliers, is vital.

However, learning from Colombia and India’s cases, we know that engaging parents can start with tools familiar to them. In Indonesia, the tools to oversee the MBG program can vary according to the locations, economic and educational background of parents, and socio-cultural conditions. Some parents are close to social media usage, while others rely heavily on face-to-face interactions. One of the tools is local champions, such as religious or community leaders, who can lead and engage other parents before starting the dissemination process while learning about suitable approaches to collect their ideas to maximize the impact of the MBG program.

Indonesian citizens should monitor the implementation of the MBG—with its loopholes for corruption. Collective action ranging from parents, communities, Civil Society Organizations, scholars, and practitioners plays a pivotal role in preventing and minimizing the negative sides of the program. While some acts might be justified to benefit those having capital, there are still some aspects that can be protected. Those aspects include the whole process: planning, supplying, distributing, implementing, and monitoring. With the IDR 71 trillion budget for this program, it requires political will from citizens. Otherwise, it will institutionalize poverty where the status quo keeps exacerbating vulnerability and marginalization of the poor (Desmond, 2023), let alone corruption. 


Chatterjee, R. A Free Meal: India’s School Lunch Program. Pulitzer Center.

Demeshko, A., Clifford Astbury, C., Lee, K.M. et al. The role of corruption in global food systems: a systematic scoping review. Global Health 20, 48 (2024). Desmond, M. (2023). Poverty by America. New York: Crown.

Global Child Nutrition Foundation. (2022). School Meal Programs Around the World: Global Report based on the 2021 Global Survey of School Meal Programs. Washington DC: Global Child Nutrition Foundation.

Keefer, P., Benjamin Roseth. Transparency and grand corruption: Lessons from the Colombia school meals program. Journal of Comparative Economics 52, 2 (2024).

Paltasingh, T., Prakash Bhue. Efficacy of Mid-Day Meal Scheme in India: Challenges and Policy Concerns. Indian Journal of Public Administration 68, 12 (2022).

Shirodkar, V. Corporate Political Activity and Firm Performance. Journal of International Management 28, 4 (2022).

Suryaningtyas, M. T. (2024, January 23). Social Assistance, from State Aid to Politicization. Retrieved from

World Food Programme. (2020). A Chance for Every Schoolchild: Partnering to scale up School Health & Nutrition for Human Capital. Rome: World Food Programme.

Alberta Christina Pertiwi was a recent graduate of Columbia University’s MA program in Human Rights. Siti Hilya Nabila was the former public policy lead researcher for Trade Minister Zulkifli Hasan from 2022-24. The views expressed in the article are their own and Kontekstual is not responsible for the content.

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