What the brains behind the Akshaya Patra Mid-Day Meals have to say about the recent controversy over the absence of onion and garlic in their servings.
Akshaya Patra, the leading provider of Mid-Day Meals for schoolchildren, has been in the news recently over allegations of deficiency in service. Swarajya, in an email interview with Shridhar Venkat, CEO, The Akshaya Patra Foundation, attempts a deeper understanding of the issue.
1) Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) refuses to add onion or garlic to the food it provides under the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme. Can you explain the rationale behind this decision? And is APF's rationale behind this choice based on scientific research?
Akshaya Patra has been working with the government for more than 18 years now. All along, we have always strived to provide well-balanced, nourishing, and hygienic meals to children. Our meals are designed to meet the nutritional requirements recommended by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). Adding onion and garlic to the recipe has a negligible or no impact on the nutrient contribution to the food. It is essential to focus on the types of vegetables used in the menu. We focus on the inclusion of seasonal vegetables in combination with ideal cereals-to-pulse ratio to enhance the nutrient content of mid-day meals.
Through a scientifically-designed menu calculated as per norms prescribed in MDM Guidelines of MHRD, our standardised recipes provide 30 per cent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). An analysis of our standardised recipes with reference to the government’s prescribed menu shows that our recipes are on a par with the government’s recipes in terms of nutrition.
2) A report which appeared in The Hindu on 31 May says that many children in the parts of Karnataka, where APF supplies MDMs, are unhappy with the food and often do not eat it. It appears to attribute this alleged trend to the absence of onion and garlic, as a result of which the food does not taste familiar to the children it is served to. What do you have to say about this?
Our efforts are directed at designing a menu that is suitable for all children in terms of taste, preference, and interest. The cyclic nature of the menu with diverse food choices helps keep the interest levels of children high. We have also taken additional measures to meet the taste expectations of children. Our recipes are developed taking into consideration the feedback obtained from the children and school authorities on a regular basis. This feedback suggests that by and large, children are satisfied with the taste of the food we supply.
3) In The Hindu's report, Siddharth Joshi, an "independent researcher" associated with the Right to Food Campaign says the Karnataka State Food Commission has found that the amount of food sent to schools has reduced because children were not eating it due to bad taste. Are you aware of any such reduction? Has the Karnataka State Food Commission informed APF or its associates in the state of any such finding?
We are not aware of any such reduction. We have instituted a system to collect feedback from children and teachers on a daily basis. This feedback helps us improve recipes based on children’s expectations.
4) Does APF or the schools it supplies MDMs to observe if children are consuming the food? Is wastage monitored?
We understand that children at this stage of growth need sufficient food. As a practice, we collect indents from every school on the previous day to ensure that children have access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food. We closely monitor food consumption and wastage on a regular basis.
If any instance of food wastage is reported, detailed analysis is conducted to resolve the situation from the ground level.
5) In the same report, Joshi also appears to suggest that "a dominant caste group’s food" is being imposed on all children. Can you comment on this? 'Improving socialisation among castes' is one of the six aims of Mid-Day Meal listed on your website. What is Akshaya Patra doing to this end?
The school lunch programme brings children together to enjoy a good meal. Across the country, we have seen that it has encouraged people from marginalised sections of society to enroll their children in school. All the children partake of meals served by Akshaya Patra together irrespective of caste, religion, or economic class. The feedback from schools has helped us tailor meals to all children.
Social equality is one of the objectives envisioned by the MHRD. By inculcating the importance of social values and equality in children, the programme is helping in eradicating caste and class barriers, thus helping in achieving this goal.
6) APF is being accused of disregarding the Memorandum of Understanding for the scheme by not following the ingredient list which reportedly includes onion and garlic. Is this really the case?
Our menu is designed and standardised to meet MHRD-prescribed nutritional value compliance of proteins and energy, and at the same time, deliver adequate micronutrients to beneficiaries. During the MoU signing process, we proposed a menu plan to fulfil the nutrition norms given by MHRD keeping the prescribed menu chart suggested by the government as the foundation. By including vegetables of both Group A and Group B as prescribed by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), the menu provides micronutrients that are crucial for the child’s growth and development, mainly antioxidants and trace minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. The nutrition value calculations of the stated recipes give an adequate amount of macronutrients, micronutrients, and antioxidants to the children, majorly calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, which are the most important minerals contributing to the overall development of children.
7) The National Institute of Nutrition and the Central Food Technological Research Institute have given a clean chit to APF's menu. But activists say that the findings of these bodies are flawed because they did not test actual samples of the meals supplied by APF. What do you have to say about this? Will APF be open to supplying samples of its meals for tests?
The Government of Karnataka had asked the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) to study the nutrition availability in Akshaya Patra meals. Both organisations have submitted their response to the Karnataka government. After reviewing their findings, the government has taken a considered decision stating that Akshaya Patra can continue its services.
We are always open to feedback and suggestions and welcome any independent assessment of our work.
8) How much of the cost involved in preparing and supplying mid-day meals is borne by APF and how much of it is paid for by the government?
We contribute as an implementing partner of the government’s Mid-Day Meal Scheme in a PPP model. While the government provides subsidies in the form of material and conversion costs, we bear the expenditure of setting up of kitchens, investment on manpower, distribution, food safety and hygiene, automation, etc. Each meal costs us Rs. 14.05 of which the government contributes Rs. 5.68 while the remaining is raised by us through fundraising from individual and corporate donors. The availability of these funds help us provide children with a multi-item menu cooked in safe and hygienic state-of-the-art kitchen facilities.
For more details, please visit our website: www.akshayapatra.org
9) If the government wants to supplement MDMs with eggs, will APF object? Has the government ever suggested this?
We understand that every stage of child growth has specific nutritional requirements. As a mid-day meal provider, we have designed our menu in a manner that is capable of providing our beneficiaries with their daily intake of fresh vegetables, dairy products, cereals, beans, legumes and oils imperative for increasing nutritional levels in children. Our balanced meal has the requisite potential to meet the nutritional requirements. Through our meals, we are able to provide the required amount of calories, proteins, and other micronutrients as recommended by the standard RDA of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme without using eggs.
Additionally, if any state government wants to supplement mid-day meals with eggs through another agency, we do not have any objection.