The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

Civil society organisations, parents and children in many states have demanded eggs in the mid-day meal provided by Akshaya Patra. The foundation has openly flouted an National Institute of Nutrition directive making eggs mandatory in mid-day meal in Andhra Pradesh. The National Institute of Nutrition recommends consumption of at least three eggs per week for children. In Rajasthan, Akshaya Patra claimed that eggs are “not permissible” in the meal.

Any religious organisation has the right to promote or oppose certain food beliefs. However, in this instance, these beliefs contradict a secular government’s mandate as well as nutritional guidelines by scientific bodies like the National Institute of Nutrition and the Indian Academy of Pediatrics. It also impinges on food rights of the majority of children attending government schools who are often from marginalised communities and suffer poor nutrition.

Rights-based campaigns have maintained the position that mid-day meals should be locally prepared, culturally relevant and should not provided through a centralised agency, especially one that applies religious sanctions on food.

The mid-day meal scheme, which is officially known as the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education, was launched in August 1995 to boost universalisation of primary education, while improving nutrition levels of children. The scheme simultaneously lays emphasis on providing cooked meals with minimum 450 calories, between eight and 12 grams of proteins and adequate quantities of other nutrients. The National Food Security Act, 2013 made the mid-day meal upto Class VIII a legal right.

Nutritional standards for midday meals

Nutrient Primary Upper primary
Calories (Kcal) 450 700
Protein (grams) 12 20
Source: National Food Security Act, 2013

An interim order of the Supreme court on April 20, 2004 further mandated that “in appointment of cooks and helpers, preference shall be given to Dalits, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” According to mid-day meal scheme guidelines “meals should be made varied, interesting and wholesome as no single vegetable, fruit or grain contains all the essential nutrients, to “ensure that children eat well throughout the week”. These guidelines have been formulated in consultation with the local community, school management committees, women’s self help groups and nutrition experts.

Different groups have complained about the taste of food being compromised by the absence of onions and garlic. In Mangalore in Karnataka, mid-day meal scheme workers have protested against Akshaya Patra supplying the meal because of the exclusion of garlic and onion. The Chandigarh education department found food made by ISKCON without onions and garlic was unpalatable for students and the mid-day meal contract was not given to the organisation.

Flouting guidelines

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India submitted to the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2015 found that 187 test samples of meals prepared by ISCKON failed to meet prescribed standards, with negative feedback from 75% children and teachers. ISKCON had also utilised lower quantities of food grains than the prescribed 100-150 grams for one meal. Children eating these meals were, on an average, consuming only around 40 grams – far less than what is ideal for their age. It is common knowledge that a tasty meal, which is very much dependent on what a child is culturally and socially accustomed to, ensures that children eat better.

The 2017 revised guidelines for engagement of civil society organisations in the mid-day meal scheme states that “operation of centralised kitchen should be entrusted to CSO/NGO with local presence and familiarity with the needs and culture of the State”. The organisation should also make a commitment to abide by the scheme guidelines issued by Ministry of Human Resource Development, be willing to work with Panchayat Raj institutions and municipal bodies in accordance with relevant guidelines of the state government, should not discriminate in any manner on the basis of religion, caste and and creed and should not use the program for propagation of any religious practice.

The committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled tribes, 2013 on prevention of untouchability in mid-day meal schemes affirmed that the meal be cooked locally in the school premises, and also raised concerns about “unauthorised and illegal collection of donations or contributions by ISKCON and Akshaya Patra from public in India and abroad” for the government-sponsored scheme.

Keeping in mind the mandate of the scheme, the government is well within its rights to terminate its contract with Akshaya Patra by giving a 30 days notice. Eggs should be mandatorily supplied to children of communities that are accustomed to eating them, and mid-day meals should be prepared locally in accordance with nutritional norms and cultural preferences rather than than the diktats of a religious organisation. Food is a basic human need that fulfils many social functions beyond nutrition. The current top-down approach to decisions made for what food communities should receive from supplementary programmes is both paternalistic and creates major bottlenecks in the success of these programmes.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam is a public health doctor and researcher and part of the Right to Food campaign in Karnataka.

Dr Vandana Prasad is a community pediatrician and public health practitioner. She convenes the Public Health Resource Network and is a joint convenor of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.