After 12 years of the NGO Akshaya Patra Foundation serving mid-day meals to schools in Odisha, the state government had found a way to serve eggs – a vital source of nutrition – to the children eating those lunches.

Akshaya Patra, which provides mid-day meals in more than 1,76,000 rural schools across the country, is an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON. It follows ISKCON’s principles of vegetarianism in its cooking and strictly avoids meat, fish and eggs. This has often been a point of conflict between the NGO and state governments with the NGO sometimes refusing to follow state government directives to provide eggs in the meal.

Akshaya Patra recently refused to follow a Karnataka government directive to include onion and garlic meals to make them more palatable, arguing that it went against ISKCON’s spiritual practices.

But in an order dated November 11, 2018, Odisha’s school and mass education department said that Akshaya Patra has agreed to include two eggs per week per student in their mid-day meal in all schools under its service area. The order specifies that the NGO will not supply boiled eggs to schools directly. Instead, school managements will ensure that eggs are procured and boiled and Akshaya Patra will bear the cost.

District Education Officers have been directed to deduct the costs of the eggs from the cooking allotment paid to Akshaya Patra.

Akshaya Patra serves more than 1.5 lakh children in Odisha in 1,980 schools. It has three centralised kitchens in Puri, Rourkela and Cuttack and one decentralised kitchen in Nayagarh.

The director of the mid-day meal scheme in Odisha Gangadhar Sahoo said that he had received many requests from school managements and parents of children to include eggs in the mid-day meal served by Akshaya Patra.

“I asked Akshaya Patra if they can provide eggs but they said they could not,” he said. “I asked if they could procure the eggs but they said that they could not be associated with any non-vegetarian food. We finally came to this agreement.”

Sahoo said that the amount to be deducted was Rs 5 per meal. He said that the order had already been circulated and hoped that district education officers will start implementing it in a week.

Under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, Odisha provides five eggs per week for children below the age of six at anganwadis and two eggs per week at government schools.

“Odisha is mostly a non-vegetarian state and children like eggs,” pointed out activist Sameet Panda.“Before this, children [in schools served by Akshaya Patra] have not been getting egg and on egg days they were being given kheer or banana.”

Rajkishore Mishra, former state advisor to the Supreme Court Commissioners on Right to Food, said, “The same children who were attending anganwadi were getting five eggs a day were suddenly forced to become vegetarian when they went to schools served by Akshaya Patra.”

Anil Pradhan, a right to education activist, said that while he was generally not in favour of Akshaya Patra being allowed to provide the mid-day meal, the new arrangement to provide eggs is workable.

“In rural and tribal areas they are not getting very nutritious food and if they get eggs it will add to their nutrition,” he said. “It also motivates children to come to school.”

Sundargarh is one area with a large tribal population where Akshaya Patra has been providing meals to schools.

“We have brought it to the notice of the government that the people here have been asked for egg in the meal,” said Mishra. “For those children in Sundargarh area this is a welcome step.”

Importance of eggs

Right to food activists have often pointed out the importance of providing eggs in the school meal.

The dietary guidelines of the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad highlights that animal proteins have higher quality than plant proteins. People can get their protein requirement from a vegetarian diet but such a diet will have to contain a combination of cereals, millets and pulses to provide all the amino acids that build better-quality proteins. Eggs are the best sources of protein having a very high biological value – the metric used to measure protein content – and therefore the best way to fight severe undernutrition among children across India.

As economist and social scientist Reetika Khera points out , eggs have a longer shelf-life than milk or bananas, they cannot be diluted or adulterated like milk or dals and the provision of eggs can be monitored easily, making corruption easier to control.

Unpalatable meals

Right to food activists have made the case that the mid-day meal should be culturally relevant and according to local tastes. Cultural relevance and taste go beyond the provision of eggs. In Odisha, as in Karnatka, children have stated that the same problem of bland food in Akshaya Patra meals has been seen in Odisha.

“The Akshaya Patra menu is not according to local taste,” said Panda, “They do not use onion and garlic, which are used in local cooking.”

However, Sahoo said that the problem has been alleviated.

“As director of the mid-day meal scheme, I have gone and tasted the food myself and I found it to be monotonous,” he said. “But since we raised this issue with Akshaya Patra they use condiments that are found in local food and it has become better. They still do not use onion and garlic but they use other local spices.”

A third problem with the Akshaya Patra model that Panda pointed out was the centralised kitchen. “The meal is cooked very early in the morning and then sent to schools,” he said. The farther the school is the longer it takes to reach and the food gets cold. When food is cooked in the school it is served hot and is according to local tastes.”

Sahoo agreed to some extent. “It is true that it is always better if the food is cooked locally but we find Akshaya Patra to be very efficient and they make the meals hygienically.”

Despite other problems, activists have welcomed the step to include eggs in all school meals in Odisha. “This will definitely help children and it supports the whole idea of providing the mid-day meal to retain children in school,” said Mishra.