Why are Karnataka’s schoolchildren unhappy with the mid-day meal?

Iskcon’s Akshaya Patra Foundation refuses to add onion or garlic to the meals it provides even though the children crave the familiar taste

Tabarak, a 14-year-old boy in Devarjeevanahalli, a locality in central Bengaluru, would rather walk home at lunch break to quickly grab a bite than eat the free meal served at school. “He finds the school food too bland,” says his mother, standing in the narrow passage of their house. “He says the saaru is too watery and the sambhar too pheeka,” says Tabarak’s grandmother from inside, where she is cutting onions for lunch.

Tabarak studies at the government school up the road from his house where food is served six days of the week by Iskcon’s Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) as part of the Central Government’s mid-day meal (MDM) scheme.

A few blocks away, 11-year-old Sabitha is too shy to say much. Her male classmates dismiss the question about whether they like the food at school, but Sabitha, hiding behind her elder sister, finally ventures: “It’s not very good. I prefer to eat at home because the food is tastier.”

“She gets to eat chicken and eggs at home,” says one of her friends, prompting Sabitha to seek further refuge in the folds of her sister’s dupatta.

Most children in Yelahanka’s LBS Colony in north Bengaluru seem to think the same. For instance, Snehapriya, 14, starves through the day at school and only eats when she comes home. “On some days, she’ll insist on taking a dabba from home but she won’t eat the food served in school,” her sister says. “She says she doesn’t like the taste — even if it is bisibelebhath or pulao.” At Snehapriya’s school too, the food is catered by APF.

Lesser foods

The testimonies of these children come at a time when APF, which caters to 2,814 schools and roughly 4.43 lakh children in the State, has been dominating headlines for its stubborn decision to not use onion and garlic in the meals it makes.

Fact file

  • Onion and garlic belong to the Allium genus that includes shallots, leeks and chives. They’re traditionally considered super foods with the following properties:
  • Low in calories but packed with nutrients such as Vit.C, Vit.B, potassium, manganese and more; Contain anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds; Reduce cholesterol and blood pressure; Contain cancer-fighting compounds; Associated with improved bone density; Have antibacterial properties; Rich in fibre and prebiotics, good for gut health
  • Ayurveda considers onion and garlic to be powerful herbs. They are traditionally used as medicine but not recommended for everyday consumption. They are considered ‘heating’ foods that can aggravate the body both physically and mentally because they are supposed to be hyper-stimulants.

Onion and garlic are ‘tamasic’ ingredients, is what APF reportedly believes. In a post on a blog run by Iskcon’s devotee network, a volunteer explains why onion and garlic are not considered favourable. Citing an email from leader Janananda Goswami Maharaj, the blogger explains that onion and garlic have the potential to “adversely affect one’s consciousness”. As ingredients, they are in the “lower modes of nature,” and are associated with passion, ignorance, lethargy, lack of focus and confusion.

Several activists in Karnataka, especially those associated with the Right to Food Campaign and the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, have criticised APF’s stance and demanded that the State Government cancel the contract with Iskcon on the grounds that it is trying to impose its religious beliefs on lakhs of children.

Activists say APF has also violated the terms of the MoU it signed with the Karnataka government under the mid-day meal scheme. Here’s how.

The controversy has its roots in a field visit by the Karnataka State Food Commission in December 2018. “The commission noticed that children were not eating as much as they should in schools,” said Siddharth Joshi, an independent researcher associated with the Right to Food Campaign. “Over a period of time, the amount of food consumed by children had become less, and so the amount of food supplied to schools had also reduced. The main reason for this, the commission said, was because the children did not find the food palatable.”

According to Joshi, the food commission then learnt that the story went further back, to 2013, to a review meeting of the scheme in Delhi, which ascertains the performance of different States. “In that meeting, it was found that Bangalore Urban and Dharwad were performing poorly and were designated as special focus districts,” Joshi said. When the State Government looked into the matter, it was found that the contractors were supplying foods of their choice instead of local foods familiar to the children. “The government said, therefore, that it was important to prescribe a menu specifying the dishes for each day and the ingredients to be used in their preparation. In the menu prepared by the government, onion is an ingredient on four out of six days at least. All organisations except APF, under contract for the scheme, follow this menu,” pointed out Joshi.

Not balanced

Last December, when the food commission learnt of APF’s refusal to follow the ingredient list, it asked the government to send a notice to APF. “We pulled them up for disregarding the MOU,” a government official said on condition of anonymity. “We asked them, when every other NGO is following the menu, why can’t you. They then submitted documents that said the ingredients they used in the preparation of the food do not compromise on the nutritional requirements of the meal and that there are adequate substitutes for both onion and garlic in their meals.”

The State Government sent these documents and APF’s menu for a review by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) — which brings us to the present day.

In February 2019, NIN gave its formal nod to APF’s menu and said: “The nutritive values of menus with ingredients used in the mentioned amounts certainly meet and often exceed the prescribed energy (Kcal) and protein requirements prescribed by MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) for the MDM.”

It also added: “With regard to the bio-availability of minerals, it is well established that inclusion of seasonal and fresh vegetables and the use of turmeric, lime, curry leaves, cumin seeds, tamarind, green leafy vegetables also improve the bio-availability of nutrients apart from additional health benefits and are also effective substitutes of onion and garlic.”

Children wait for lunch to be served at a school in Mysuru.

Children wait for lunch to be served at a school in Mysuru.  
| Photo Credit:
M.A. SRIRAM

Appalled by NIN’s order, activists last month circulated an open letter signed by 10 organisations and 94 experts (including activists associated with the Right to Food Campaign, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, and faculty from TISS, Mumbai, and IIM-Ahmedabad). The letter argues that NIN has neither sampled nor measured the food to arrive at its conclusion. Nor has it considered the testimonies of the stakeholders, particularly the children eating the food. “They have made recommendations based on a menu provided by APF, which doesn’t even mention the quantities of ingredients used to prepare the meals. In view of such serious lapses, it is clear that the conclusions reached by NIN are unscientific and biased, void of any basis in any systematic study and have been provided only to give a clean chit to APF,” said the letter.

When asked about this, Hemalatha R., director, NIN, said “accepted norms” were followed to assess the APF menu.

“We computed macronutrients and micronutrients from the MDM menus recommended by the Karnataka government and the MDM menus provided by APF from the published scientific data of the Institute [Indian Food Composition Table (IFCT-NIN) and Nutritive Value of Indian foods (NVIF)]. It is an accepted norm to assess the nutritional quantity and quality of food using the computational methods from the quantities of ingredients that go into making it.”

But Joshi’s argument is that “the government should have just enforced the menu they themselves have prescribed. There was no need to seek an opinion from NIN or CFTRI. Also, the government phrased the question to NIN in such a strange way. The question should have been, why not onion and garlic?”

Umashankar S.R., principal secretary of education in Karnataka, defends the decision. “Under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, what the government has prescribed are the nutrient levels required in a meal — the level of carbohydrates, proteins, etc. They have not prescribed the ingredients. So when we got this particular complaint, we referred it to CFTRI and NIN asking them about the advantages of onion and garlic and if we have to use them. NIN has said that APF meets the nutrition standards, so why should we cancel the contract with APF? Except for this one small reason (the refusal to use onion and garlic), there are a lot of advantages for the government to continue its contract with Iskcon. They provide hygienic meals and cater to a large group of children in the State as well as in the country. We aren’t delving into philosophical and religious issues. And we cannot punish them unnecessarily for somebody’s objections.”

Studies show the children are eating less, defeating the purpose of the mid-day meal. (Representational image)

Studies show the children are eating less, defeating the purpose of the mid-day meal. (Representational image)  
| Photo Credit:
Ishaan Raghunandan

When asked if the government was being partial to APF, Umashankar denied it. “Who is going to serve such a huge number of children if we cancel this contract?” he said. “There are logistical issues; overnight, we cannot build kitchens and hire cooks. The administration cannot function on the basis of philosophical arguments. I’ve told these activists directly — they have their heads in the clouds. I live on earth.”

When contacted, APF responded with a long mail that basically repeated the same points without referring to onions and garlic at all. The mail reiterates: “With the responsibility of feeding millions of children every day, we take all the necessary steps to ensure that our mid-day meals are not just safe and hygienic, but nutritious and tasty as well.”

As the controversy rages, Right to Food activist Sylvia Karpagam reminds us that the absolute bottom line, and something the controversy distracts us from, is the fact that children are not eating the food. “They don’t like the food,” she said. “You can bring bowlfuls of something I’ve never eaten in my life and tell me it is really healthy for me, but I’m not going to eat it. It is human behaviour. You need to like the smell, the taste, you need to want to eat it. What’s happening is that because they’re so hungry, the children are eating a bit, but definitely not to a full stomach. Isn’t the entire objective of the mid-day meal scheme then just lost?”

Dr. Karpagam’s arguments find resonance in another school in Kattigenahalli in Bengaluru. Parents in the village said that a huge amount of food gets wasted each day in the school. “Most of it is just emptied into the local drain here because children don’t feel like finishing what is on their plate,” says Nagamma, a mother. “Some of the children eat what they get; they don’t really know what onion or garlic does to their meal. But if you ask them what their favourite meal is, they say bisibelebhath or pulao, because that is tastier than rice and sambhar.”

No budget

Akshaya Patra Foundation caters to roughly 4.43 lakh children in Karnataka.

Akshaya Patra Foundation caters to roughly 4.43 lakh children in Karnataka.  
| Photo Credit:
K.R. DEEPAK

Do the kids like eggs? “Oh yes,” says Dayanand, 10. “Miss, will they give eggs in our school? I love eggs.”

Umashankar, however, said the government has no budget in the scheme to provide eggs. “The money we get is barely enough to sustain the existing scheme. There’s no talk of eggs as of now. The State Government is providing hot milk as part of its scheme. That’ll have to do for now.”

Meanwhile, in an email response, NIN endorses eggs. “Meat and egg are good sources of protein and [possess] a wide variety of other beneficial nutrients. Incorporating them in the diet of children is any day beneficial.”

Joshi describes how at a broader level, there is utter incongruity between the kind of food provided by the government and the local cultures and tastes of the children eating it. In reality, the recipients of the mid-day meals are children from minority and socio-economically backward communities. “As much as it is linked to need and nutrition, food is also inextricably linked to one’s culture,” said Joshi.

“If we examine the food traditions in Karnataka, we realise that only 15% of people are vegetarian,” he said. However, there appears to be a widespread belief that vegetarianism is superior, possibly because of its association with upper caste customs. And, as Joshi said, to say that “the government, in its schemes to mitigate hunger, will only serve a dominant caste group’s food is terribly unfair and deeply problematic. What about the cultures and food traditions of the children actually eating these meals?”

Dr. Karpagam agrees. “If you are eating ragi or eggs at home, you should be able to have that as part of your meal.” When children of a certain culture are able to access that culture in their school, it can add a lot of value to the experience of schooling. “Even more important is to encourage local cooks, specifically Dalit cooks, women’s self-help groups, and locally sourced ingredients. This way, you’re also sustaining the local economy,” she said.

Ultimately, as activists argue, what needs to shift is the language and narrative surrounding such schemes. Food is a right, not a favour or an act of benevolence by the government.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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