The Big Picture – ICDS & Mid-day Meals: Who Should Decide the Food Mix?
The midday meal program for school children and the supplementary nutrition program for malnourished and undernourished children has been one of the biggest social welfare programs seen anywhere in the world. While the ICDS program for supplementary nutrition was started in 1975, the midday meals program became a national program in 1995. It is said that about 120 million children are covered under these programs and is largest in the world. However, periodically controversies arise about these programs, sometimes about its quality, sometimes about its content and sometimes about religious and social prejudices dictating these programs. Recently, in Madhya Pradesh when it was suggested by the authorities that egg should be part of the menu for the children under ICDS scheme for malnourished children in three tribal districts, the chief minister shot down the proposal. It has been seen that similar political interventions in other states has resulted in certain nutritious food not being allowed in these programs. The question is who should be deciding the menu for these programs and how are they presently decided?
Tamil Nadu was the pioneer of the midday meals scheme. Mid day meals, as a public welfare concept in India, dates back to 1925 when such a project was launched for the underprivileged children in the then Madras Corporation area. One of the pioneers, Madras Corporation started providing cooked meals to children in Corporation schools in the Madras city; the program was later introduced on a larger scale in 1960s. Tamil Nadu’s midday meal program is among the best known in the country.
Usually the menu for midday meals is decided based on the idea given by the National Institute of Nutrition or by the nutrition chart given by the Ministry Women and Child Development. States and UTs also take up the food which is suitable climatically and also in terms of distances. When Supreme Court mandated that all the food has to be cooked over the place it became more difficult to see the protein part of it actually being reached the children. Experts say that the decision should not be taken by the political executive and even the secretariat should be assisted by Nutritionists.
As per a 2011 survey by the National Institute of Nutrition, every second child in Madhya Pradesh is malnourished, and eggs could prove to be a cost effective way to increase the nutritional value of mid-day meals. The state government, however, says it may hurt the sentiment of people. The biggest reason for not agreeing to it is social belief. The State government says that most of the people in the state are vegetarian. Contrary to the government’s stand, a 2006 survey says only 35% of the state’s population is vegetarian. The Congress says it feels the government can come up with a mechanism where the vegetarian children could be served an alternative to eggs. It also suspects the government may be opposing to safeguard the vested interest of few.
ICDS is the only government program which reaches the children under the age of three. There have also been political interventions to try and bring in biscuits and ready foods which were consistently put down by the Supreme Court.
Deficiency of Vitamin A is the common cause for blindness. Egg contains vitamin A and hence experts say it should be included in the Midday meal food menu. Some states are thinking to drop eggs from the midday meal menu for schoolchildren up to Class VIII, in view of the rising prices of the protein. Experts say religious sentiments should be kept out of this. They say that the eggs serve as an easy source of protein and they cannot be adulterated. Another reason for opting for the egg against milk, bananas or other pulses is logistics as cooking, transporting and storing eggs is far easier than having to deal with thousands of liters of milk.
Social activists say eggs can be an ideal and cost-effective source of proteins and micro nutrients from which malnourished children can benefit. Also it is very easy to cook with no chances of adulteration, and it will leave very less room for pilferage. As it will have to be procured locally, there will be very little margin of embezzlement. The communities facing maximum number of malnutrition cases are tribals and Dalits where eggs can be served.
West Bengal provides three eggs a week to each child or mother approaching an anganwadi – half an egg every day for six days a week. Bihar and Odisha provide eggs twice a week, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka serve eggs thrice a week while Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have eggs on their menu four times a week. Tamil Nadu is the most generous of the lot, providing five eggs a week to school children. At least 12 states include eggs in these meals.
In states like Rajasthan and Karnataka, provision of midday meals in schools has been taken up by NGOs like Akshay Patra, who insist on serving a strictly vegetarian fare to children. While Karnataka’s anganwadis do serve eggs under the ICDS program, its midday meal scheme has been heavily influenced by this vegetarian lobby, which includes Akshay Patra and the religious organisation ISKCON Food Relief Foundation.
An expert committee constituted by the government says that if beneficiaries of the midday meal schemes wanted eggs, they could get them from elsewhere without hurting the religious sentiments.