Imposing a food culture

The controversy in Karnataka over the Akshaya Patra Foundation’s refusal to include onions and garlic in its mid-day meals in government schools raises concerns over the imposition of upper-caste food habits on pupils of poor and lower-caste backgrounds.

Published : Jun 19, 2019 12:30 IST

June 22, 2005:  Bengaluru Mayor R. Narayana Swamy (left) exchanging an MoU with C.C. Dasa, Director of ISKCON’s Akshaya Patra, on the mid-day meal scheme for corporation schoolchildren, at the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike office.

June 22, 2005: Bengaluru Mayor R. Narayana Swamy (left) exchanging an MoU with C.C. Dasa, Director of ISKCON’s Akshaya Patra, on the mid-day meal scheme for corporation schoolchildren, at the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike office.

THE Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) is a flagship scheme of the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Government of India. The scheme, implemented in partnership with State governments, envisages provision of mid-day meals for six days to pupils of government and government-aided schools. The aims of the scheme are to increase student enrolment, ensure daily attendance and reduce dropout rates. Regular provision of a healthy meal is intended to increase nutrition levels of the children and thereby enhance their learning capability.

The scheme began to be implemented nationwide following the Supreme Court’s directive in November 2001 to all State governments to introduce cooked mid-day meals in primary schools. Karnataka introduced the scheme in stages, between 2002 and 2008, to cover all school-going children.

According to the latest available data, the MDMS, called “Akshara Dasoha” in Karnataka, provides noon meals to 53.47 lakh pupils in 54,576 schools.

While the Centre and the State share the cost, in the ratio of 60:40, for pupils from Classes 1 to 8, the State government bears the entire cost of extending the scheme to pupils of Classes 9 and 10. The Karnataka government has also been providing a daily quota of milk since 2013, which is part of a separate scheme but is administered by the MDMS authorities in the State.

The MDMS provides an honorarium for its staff members, mainly Dalit women, who cook the food in the school premises. In Karnataka, the honorarium has been increased over the years. The head cook and her assistant (in bigger schools) are paid Rs.2,700 and Rs.2,600 respectively every month. For 2019-20, the State government has allocated Rs.1,958 crore to the Department of Primary and Secondary Education to cover expenditure relating to the MDMS under various heads. The allocation is based on the number of days noon meal is provided. It is 240 days for the current academic year.

All schools in rural areas and a few in urban areas are provided freshly cooked meals prepared in the school premises, and the scheme is administered by the district authorities and the Department of Public Instruction. In 5,494 urban schools, with 9.23 lakh children, the department has an arrangement with 74 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide lunch. This implies that NGOs provide meals to around 17 per cent of all schoolgoing children.

The largest NGO is the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF). It was an early participant in the MDMS in Karnataka and provides meals to 4.32 lakh children in 2,825 schools in five districts (Bengaluru Urban, Mangaluru, Mysuru, Ballari and Dharwad), that is, around 8 per cent of all schoolgoing children in Karnataka. In Bengaluru, it covers 2,47,000 children in 1,171 schools, including all the schools under the purview of the Municipal Corporation of Bengaluru, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). (The above figures are from the Department of Public Instruction. There is a slight variance between these figures and those provided by the APF. According to the NGO, it provides mid-day meals to 2,887 schools, covering 4.49 lakh children in Karnataka.)

Over the past year, there has been a controversy with regard to the role of the APF in providing the noon meal as it has refused to include onion as an ingredient in the preparation of sambar although the NGO is mandated to do so, by the Department of Public Instruction in its circular dated December 28, 2013. (A copy of the circular is in Frontline ’s possession.) The APF’s food does not include garlic either, but it is not mandated to be included in the list of raw ingredients. According to the circular, rice and sambar must be provided four times a week (from Monday to Thursday), bisibelebath (a preparation with rice and lentils) on Fridays, and “food product from wheat” on Saturday. Regional variations are allowed. Jowar (sorghum millet) is used instead of wheat in northern Karnataka and ragi (finger millet) replaces wheat in southern Karnataka. The circular says onion must be used four times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, in sambar. The menu has been prescribed keeping in mind the calorific requirements of a growing child. The menu is designed in such a way that primary school students get 450 kilo calories of food and middle and senior school students get 700 kilo calories of their daily requirement through the mid-day meal.

Interestingly, the menu was formalised when complaints arose that NGOs were not providing nutritious meals. The circular particularly identifies Bengaluru Urban and Dharwad as “Special Focus Districts” for poor utilisation of foodgrains and low coverage of children. Both districts have a large number of schools to which the APF provides meals.

The circular states: “The NGOs that are involved in the implementation of mid-day meals scheme across the State are supplying same kind of food every day to schools, using same kind of vegetables every day and instead of using food ingredients as per the local food customs, are preparing food following their own organisation’s food practices and supplying it to children. Because of this, not only are children not eating the food with enjoyment but monitoring institutions have also raised objections. Not only that, during visits to schools, the opinion sought from children also supplements this.”

This controversy escalated late last year when M.R. Maruti, Joint Director, MDMS, Department of Public Instruction, wrote to the APF on November 11, 2018, instructing it to comply with the prescribed menu of the State government and include onion and garlic in its meals. The APF responded by stating that its meals complied with the stipulated nutritional standards. When the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) approved the APF menu, Maruti wrote another letter to the APF on April 12,2019, saying that it was not required to change its menu.

Taste of food

When the issue is viewed from a larger perspective, three objections can be raised over the APF’s refusal to include onion and garlic in its meals. First, there have been widely reported complaints with regard to the taste of the food served. Taste is a subjective matter, but there seem to be too many complaints to treat it as an aberration. “We are not talking about the quality of food and nutrition. There is no compromise on the quality of the food provided by the APF and it is hygienic. The complaint is that it tastes the same every day,” said Maruti. The statement is valuable as it comes from the nodal office that supervises the implementation of the MDMS in Karnataka.

What logically follows from the statement is that this has led to a decline in the consumption of food by children in these schools, the consequence of which would be a drop in nutritional standards.

Siddharth Joshi, an independent researcher associated with the Right to Food Campaign, stated: “Food being bland is a contributing factor for schoolchildren to opt out of the scheme. The moment centralised kitchens come into the picture, the quality of the food deteriorates. The MDMS is designed to fulfil one-third of the calorific requirements of the day. As many of these students come from marginalised communities, this is their chance of having their only good meal in the day and even if this is not being eaten, there is a serious problem.”

How do we realise that the food consumed by the pupils is inadequate? In a 2015 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (Performance Audit of Mid Day Meal Scheme [2009-10 to 2013-14]), the APF (under the name of its parent organisation, ISKCON [International Society for Krishna Consciousness]) was identified as an NGO whose food was not being eaten sufficiently by children. Between 2011 and 2014, the APF prepared 322 lakh meals in Ballari district, as per the invoices submitted. Had it conformed to the prescribed norms, it would have had to use 36 lakh kg of rice, but it used only 28.91 lakh kg, meaning there was a shortfall of 7.08 lakh kg of rice during the three-year period (pages 115 and 116). Another piece of evidence shows that the coverage percentage of the MDMS is lowest in Dharwad, Ballari and Bengaluru Urban where the APF supplies food (Mid Day Meal Scheme: Annual Work Plan and Budget 2018-19).

While the NIN has approved the mid-day meal provided by the APF as meeting nutritional standards, activists claim that the decision was made on the basis of the menu sent by the APF and not by physically evaluating the quality of food.

Second, while the social strata of children attending government schools is diverse, data clearly show that the majority of them come from poorer, lower caste and marginalised backgrounds. They represent different food cultures, none of which exclude the use of onion and garlic, a common ingredient in a variety of cuisines. The caste composition of students studying in government and aided schools shows that 93.79 per cent of them belong to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe or Other Backward Classes categories (including Muslims). (Source: U-DISE [Unified District Information System for Education] Report for 2016-17 [Karnataka].) Onion and garlic are an integral part of these communities’ diet.

In an email to Shridhar Venkat, chief executive officer of of the APF, Frontline asked, “Why are onion and garlic not used in meals prepared by Akshaya Patra?” There was no direct answer, but he gave a long-winded response on how the APF provided tasty and nutritious meals that met the prescribed calorific standards.

What could be the reason for the non-inclusion of onions and garlic? In their letter, dated May 2, 2019, to the Principal Secretary, Education, Karnataka, activists stated: “Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) is linked to International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), a religious organisation which holds the belief that ingredients like onion and garlic are not ‘sattvik’ and should not be consumed. By not including these ingredients in the food supplied as part of mid-day meals scheme in Karnataka, it is imposing its religious beliefs on children studying in publicly funded (government-run and government-aided) schools.”

Thus, in schools where the APF provides noon meal, a Hindu upper-caste Brahmanical food culture is being imposed on schoolchildren. Siddharth Joshi narrates an anecdote to back this observation: “At the BBMP Girls High School in Austin Town, children told me that they would prefer to have food cooked with onions and garlic, and would even like to have eggs on their menu. The lady who was serving the food said that Brahmins did not eat onion and garlic, so perhaps it was good if we also desisted [from eating them]. This is how a Brahmanical sentiment gains dominance.”

Violation of MoU

Third, the APF is in violation of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) it signed with the Bengaluru Zilla Panchayat for 2018-19. (A copy of the MoU is in the possession of Frontline. ) It is necessary for a participating NGO to sign an agreement with the institution of local governance. The MoU includes an annexure (Schedule II) that prescribes the raw ingredients. The fact that it is not using the list of prescribed ingredients is a violation of the terms of the contract. Many activists wonder how the NGO is allowed to get away with the violation when 73 other NGOs that are part of the scheme use onion and garlic in their noon meals.

The cost per meal for pupils of Classes 1 to 5 is Rs.4.35 and of Classes 6 to 10 it is Rs.6.51. For schools directly supported by the State government, the amount is disbursed in advance at the district and taluk levels while the NGOs’ bills are settled on a monthly basis. Foodgrains are provided to the NGOs through an arrangement with the Food Corporation of India at subsidised rates. Rice costs Rs.3 a kg and wheat Rs.2 a kg. Even transportation costs of the participating NGOs are reimbursed.

Shridhar Venkat, in response to a query from Frontline , said “... a meal costs Rs.14.05 of which the government contributes Rs.5.68”. The remainder is raised through donations.

In a report in The Hindu , Umashankar S.R., Principal Secretary of the Department of Education, defended the State government’s decision to continue its partnership with the APF. He stated: “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.... NIN has said that the APF meets the nutrition standards, so why should we cancel the contract with the 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.... We aren’t delving into philosophical and religious issues.”

Eggs were provided in the mid-day meals in government schools in Karnataka between 1990 and 1992 when S. Bangarappa was Chief Minister. The Kannada slogan “dinakkondu motte, tumbuvudu hotte” (an egg a day ensures a full stomach) was popular at the time. Eggs have not been included on the mid-day meal menu by the succeeding governments. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha provide eggs as part of the mid-day meals. By allowing the APF to get away with not including onion and garlic in its food, there is a fear that an upper-caste food culture is setting the boundaries for food habits in the State.

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