After refusing to supply eggs as part of mid-day meals (MDM) for children in government schools up to Class 8 — in a country where a third of the world’s stunted children and half of the world’s ‘wasted’ children reside — Akshaya Patra Foundation, an NGO run by the mammoth religious organisation, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), has refused to prepare meals with onion and garlic in Karnataka citing ‘satvik’ standards.
On December 13, public health experts from the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA) and food security activists from the Right To Food Campaign (RTFC) activists wrote to the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD) and the Karnataka government, asking all contracts for the supply of mid-day meals given to Akshaya Patra — in Karnataka and in other states — be scrapped.
They have also demanded that the supply of eggs be restored as part of the mid-day meal, and that the MDM be prepared by cooks from the local communities through self-help groups (SHGs) and other community-based organisations (CBOs) using fresh local products and in keeping with the nutritional norms and cultural practices.
Before this letter, the Karnataka government had already issued a notice to Akshaya Patra, which is providing mid-day meals in 4.43 lakh schools in the state, for violating the guidelines of the State Food Commission.
But while the state government directed the NGO to include onion and garlic in the meals to ensure the food is tastier so that the kids actually eat (and given that they are culturally accustomed to onion and garlic) — the government did not say anything regarding the non-provisioning of eggs, as pointed out by JSA and RTFC in the letter.
Meanwhile, the Foundation also refused to sign the memorandum for 2018-19 with the government, and has itself sought intervention from Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy.
According to PTI, officials from the state food commission had visited several schools and suggested that onion and garlic be added for enhancing the taste of the meals.
Speaking to PTI, Mohandas Pai, a trustee of the Akshaya Patra Foundation and former Chief Financial Officer of multinational IT corporation Infosys, alleged that “it is obvious that some officials under the influence of vested interests are playing mischief for reasons all known”.
According to the Foundation’s claims, it supplies mid-day meals to more than 1.7 million children in 12 states of India.
Earlier, Akshaya Patra had violated a National Institute of Nutrition order that made eggs mandatory in mid-day meals in Andhra Pradesh by refusing to provide eggs. Indeed, Akshaya Patra has refused to provide eggs in any of the states it provides the cooked food for the MDM scheme.
Also Read: India Has Failed Its Children, Tops in Stunting and Wasting
Eggs are excellent sources of protein and other nutrients, especially for small children who come from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) recommends that children consume at least three eggs per week due to its high nutritional advantages and because “animal proteins are of high quality as they provide all the essential amino acids in the right proportion,” as the letter said.
The Foundation has cited its religious principles for excluding eggs as well as onion and garlic from the meals.
In fact, in a tweet on December 6, ISKCON said that onion and garlic was “detrimental” to “spiritual progress”.
The letter also pointed out that at Mangalore in Karnataka, there were protests by workers stating that Akshaya Patra is a “religious organisation that is forcing students to consume food without garlic and onion while also leading to loss of jobs for local women who work in the schools to prepare the MDM.”
Also Read: Thousands of Scheme Workers Protest in Bihar and Punjab
In Chandigarh, too, said the letter, the food that had been prepared without onions and garlic by the ISKCON agency “was found unsuitable and the contract was not given to the agency.”
The JSA and RTFC activists said in the letter — which was signed by 145 activists activists from across the country — that such “religious diktats” cannot override the the HRD ministry’s guidelines on mid-day meals issued last year, which “specify that no organisation supplying the meals should use the programme to propagate any religious practice”. The letter also made the point that this was against the established principles of the Right to Food in mid-day meal schemes.
“The National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (MDM Scheme), launched in August 1995 to boost universalisation of primary education, while impacting on the nutrition levels of children, simultaneously lays emphasis on providing cooked meals with minimum 450 calories, 8-12 grams of proteins and adequate quantities of other nutrients […] further converted by the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013 into a legal right up to Class 8,” said the letter.
Citing the National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS) data for Karnataka (2015), the letter said that stunting among children from the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities was 39%, wasting was 40%, while under-nutrition was 28% and 25%, respectively.
Also Read: NFHS Report Indicates Malnourishment Higher Among Dalit, Adivasi Children
“It is evident that children from marginalised communities suffer from lack of basic nutrition. The focus of the State government should be to ensure that children get both adequate quality and quantity of food,” the letter said.
The letter said that a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India submitted to the Ministry of Human Resource Development on the MDM scheme in 2015 found that 187 test samples of meals prepared by ISCKON failed to meet prescribed standards.
“Out of 24 schools where cooked MDM was being supplied by ISKCON, there was a negative feedback from 75% of children and teachers,” said the letter.
“The agency had also utilised less quantity of foodgrains than the prescribed scale of 100/150 gm for preparing one meal and lifted only 21,511 quintals of rice against the prescribed requirement of 68,561 which means only around 40 gms of rice was being consumed or children were eating much less than they should ideally be for their age.”
As the letter puts plainly, “It is common knowledge that a tasty meal ensures that children eat better and taste is very much dependent on what a child is culturally and socially accustomed to.”
The letter said that the Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 2013, on the prevention of untouchability in MDM schemes in government schools had stated that it is “desirable that the MDM is cooked locally in the school premises either through self-help groups or through personnel engaged by the School Management Committee.”
What’s more, the committee in 2013 also raised concerns about “unauthorised and illegal collection of donations/ contribution by ISKCON and Akshaya Patra from public in India and abroad for Government-sponsored MDM Scheme for school children in Karnataka.”