On Wednesday, members of The Akshaya Patra Foundation (TAPF) are all set to meet the Karnataka Food Commission over a stalemate regarding mid-day meals supplied by the foundation. Before the government signs a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with TAPF, the Food Commission has asked it to respond to allegations by Right to Food activists and few local administration members that the meals provided are bland, monotonous and do not meet standards of nutrition.
TAPF, which has been providing mid-day meals to children in Karnataka for more than a decade, had suddenly come under the lens of the government with regards to the quality of the food.
Speaking to TNM, Mohandas Pai, Trustee of TAPF, said that they had no plans of changing their menu at present, as they adhered to the rules outlined by the government of India.
âThe government of India has issued certain rules to follow and this may be altered as needed as long as the nutrition requirements are met. This is what we have been doing,â he said.
âWhen preparing food for our children, we follow the guidelines issued by the government of India,â Mohandas Pai added. âThis current issue has been brought up by those with vested interests. There is corruption at play.â
The Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD) has established a set of guidelines for those providing mid-day meals throughout the country to follow. It is important to note that these guidelines can be adjusted and tweaked as deemed necessary by each state, when establishing its mid-day meal program. For example, in Karnataka, these standards have been tweaked to establish a vegetarian menu, which is rice-based. Variations of local vegetables are allowed. Wheat, which is required to be used at least one day of the week, is substituted according to regional preferences. As a result, jowar roti is made in north Karnataka and ragi is utilised in south Karnataka.
The meals provided by TAPF since its inception in 2000 do not include garlic or onion, as they prepare only âsatvikâ meals. They also do not provide eggs in their meals.
Sources in the Food Commission told TNM that the government will not object to the satvik meal, but will ask for other changes.
âWe will meet Akshaya Patra on Wednesday. They have agreed to change the menu but have decided to stick to the satvik meal. The menu change will be based on the vegetables and the variety of dishes that will be prepared,â an official with the Food Commission said.
It all began when the CEO of the Zilla Panchayat, Bangalore Urban, refused to sign the Memorandum of Understanding with Akshaya Patra, citing that the organisation was not providing meals in accordance with the guidelines prescribed by the state government. This was in reference to the inclusion of onions and garlic in its meals, which is mandated by the state government, but not specified under the guidelines issued by the MHRD.
The district administration also refused to sign the MoU based on the findings of the Food Commission. Headed by Commissioner N Krishnamurthy, the Commissionâs inspections in government schools across the state revealed that Akshaya Patra was giving lesser quantity of food as opposed to the norms prescribed by the state government.
âEach child is supposed to be given 150 gm of food per day. But in many schools, especially in Ballari district, the quantity of food being given to the children was less than 150 gm per meal,â Krishnamurthy told TNM.
The Commission also found that the food was bland and monotonous and this had led to children refusing to eat the food. âThe food was not at all tasty. Akshaya Patra says that they have met the calorific value prescribed by the government. The problem is that the children are not consuming as many calories simply because the food doesnât taste good to them,â Krishnamurthy added.
The Commission also found that the milk being served to the children was cold and in some cases the milk was spoilt and was in violation of the Ksheera Bhagya scheme.
A cluster of NGOs and activists too have opposed the scheme in its current form. âChildren should be getting hot milk, but they are getting cold milk. The food also tends to be bland and this too results in several children wasting food and not eating, which defeats the whole purpose of the scheme,â public health expert Dr Sylvia Karpagam told TNM.
She, along with other activists including the Right to Food Campaign and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), have also written a letter to officials expressing their concern over the issue. âThis standoff highlights the position of rights-based campaigns that mid-day meals should be locally prepared and culturally relevant and not provided through a centralised agency, especially one that applies limits to the food on the basis of religious belief,â states the letter.
âWe oppose the idea of centralised kitchens. It should be provided by womenâs groups in the community or in the school using local ingredients and culturally similar to what kids are used to,â she said to TNM, adding that if TAPF were to incorporate their suggestions and tweak their menus, then they would have no issues in allowing the foundation to continue providing meals to students in Karnataka.
A source with the Food Commission stated that they have asked the state government officials to make alternate arrangements if TAPF doesnât abide by the contract.
TAPF, however, says that all these allegations are baseless. âWe have been supplying food for 18 years now, no issues have cropped up in that time. I donât know what basis on which these allegations have been made, these are all the efforts of some leftists. If they want to take up the effort of providing these meals to children, we have no issue. But how many people have actually come forward stating that they would do so?â Pai said.
Mentioning the recent CBI raids in Tamil Nadu on a company called Christy Foods that has been accused of mass corruption in the mid-day meal scheme, Pai said, âWho knows exactly who may gain from this? There have been several allegations against others whoâve taken up the initiatives, recently in Tamil Nadu. Instead of fresh food, readymade dishes were being served. We provide fresh nutritious food adhering to all guidelines issued by the government of India.â
For the 5,514 government and aided schools in the state, 65 NGOs feed 9 lakh children. The rest of the children receive mid-day meals cooked at schools. Of these 9 lakh children, 4.5% is covered by Akshaya Patra. Bangalore Urban has 2.5 lakh children, all of whom are covered by Akshaya Patra.