It was found that the consumption of mid-day meals was higher in schools when they were being cooked on the school premises, instead of being provided by centralised kitchens.

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news Mid-day meals Thursday, August 22, 2019 - 13:25

The discord surrounding mid-day meals (MDM) in Karnataka has to factor in the opinions and preferences of  several stakeholders: parents, teachers, administrators and government officials, and not to forget the students who eat these meals. In Karnataka, more than 8.7 lakh students at over 5,500 schools are supplied mid-day meals by 68 NGOs. Within Bengaluru urban, NGOs provide meals to 2,072 schools – and most of them cook their food in centralised kitchens. 

According to the National Food Security Act (NFSA), school-based kitchens – where food is prepared inside each school, and not delegated to a centralised kitchen – are the norm. But in Karnataka, the exception has become the rule, where NGOs and centralised kitchens are now the norm. Many schools, especially in Bengaluru, are receiving mid-day meals from NGOs, despite there being adequate space for school-based kitchens. The meals are usually not hot, and the taste of food supplied from centralised kitchens is not liked by many children. Because of this, parents say that children are not getting the nutrition they need, as they end up not eating the food provided in schools. 

One only needs to glance at the dismal statistics of malnutrition in Karnataka to understand the seriousness and urgency of the crisis. Malnutrition in India coexists with a host of vitamin, protein, mineral, and fat deficiencies. Anaemia, along with hunger in the classroom, affects every aspect of cognitive, psychomotor, physical and mental functioning.

Generations of children are growing up without access to essential proteins, vitamins, minerals, fats and other nutrients. An alarming number of children are shorter, thinner and weigh less than what is ideal [Table 1 - 4th National Family Health Survey (NFHS) (2015-16)]. The negative consequences continue into adulthood.  The percentage of women aged 15 – 49 who are anemic in Karnataka is 44.8% and of children aged 6 -59 months is 60.9%. The Rapid Survey of Children (2013-14) by the Ministry of Women and Child development shows similar findings (Table 2)

Table 1: Nutrition indicators in Karnataka (2015-16) among Children < 5 years

Caste/tribe/religion

Stunting (Ht for age < 2 SD)

Underweight (Weight for age <2 SD)

Scheduled caste

39.1

40.1

Scheduled tribe

39.3

40.3

OBC

36.0

32.6

Other

32.2

33.8

Overall

36.2

35.2

Hindu

36.2

35.9

Muslim

36.4

32.5

Christian

33.2

35.2

Table 2 – Rapid Survey findings on nutrition, WCD, 2013 -14


 

Malnutrition is a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution – a fundamental right to life. Yet, discussions around mid-day meals and how to improve them to ultimately benefit children are obstructed by a section of NGOs, businesses, and society, in the name of culture and ideology.

Between April and July 2019, this writer was part of a fact-finding team that visited government schools across the state to assess the differences between, and the issues and challenges faced by, school-based and NGO-run mid-day meal (MDM) schemes.

The need for school-based kitchens

The fact-finding team visited 24 schools in Karnataka – while 14 of them had school-based kitchens, the rest got their meals from centralised kitchens. 

In Karnataka, the supply of mid-day meals has been handed over for 5,507 schools to 68 NGOS to cover 8,73,597 children. In Bangalore urban, 2072 schools are supplied by NGOs, of which Akshaya Patra supplies 1199 or 57.87% schools (Table 3). All schools under the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) are being supplied by Akshaya Patra, an NGO with a centralized kitchen.

Table 3: Schools supplied by NGOs in Bengaluru urban

Name of NGO

No. of Schools

%age

Akshaya Patra

1199

57.87%

Adamya Chetna

275

13.27%

Annapurna Trust

111

5.36%

Integrated Program for Development of People

92

4.44%

Akhill Karanataka Kala

83

4.01%

Pragati Foundation

76

3.67%

Samarthanam Trust

48

2.32%

Karuna Seva

43

2.08%

Akhil Karnataka Kannada Kasturi

42

2.03%

Priya Charitable Trust

32

1.54%

Sai Mandali

28

1.35%

Asha Kirana

21

1.01%

Subbrama Sastry Memorial Trust

10

0.48%

Gil Gaal Trust

10

0.48%

Tiruppavanam Trust

2

0.10%

Total

2072

 

Annexure 1: List of Schools visited by the Fact-finding Team

S. No.

Location

MDM supplied by

1

BBMP High school and junior college, Bangalore urban

APF

2

Govt. Tamil HPS School, Bangalore urban

APF

3

Government Urdu Primary School, Bangalore urban

APF

4

Government Model Tamil Primary School, Bangalore urban

APF

5

Kannada Primary and Secondary School, Bangalore urban

APF

6

Primary school, Vijayagara, Bangalore urban

APF

8

Govt school, Bheemanakoppa, Mysore

School based

9

Govt School, Mastihalli, Mysore

School based

10

Govt school, Mastigudi, Mysore

School based

11

Govt. school, Yellandur taluk, Chamarajnagar

JSS matta

12

Govt school, Hiriyur taluk

School based

13

Govt. school, Chalakere (1)

School based

14

Govt school, Chalakere (2)

School based

15

Govt school, Chalakere (3)

School based

16

Govt school, Chalakere (4)

School based

17

Govt school, Molkalmur (1)

School based

18

Govt school, Molkalmur (2)

School based

19

Govt school, Chitradurga (1)

School based

20

Govt school, Chitradurga (2)

School based

21

Govt school, Chitradurga (3)

School based

22

Government Girls School, Anekal

Pragathi foundation

23

Government Middle school, Anekal

School based

24

Govt Urdu school, Anekal

Pragathi foundation

It was found that the consumption of food was higher in schools when it was being cooked on the school premises. For example, in Chitradurga, consumption is says to be around 80-85% with school-based kitchens, while it is only 40 - 50 when meals are cooked in a centralised kitchen. 

Several parents that we spoke to also feel that school-based kitchens are better than centralised kitchens. Narsamma, whose granddaughter studies in a government school in Anekal, says, “Why can’t two women be appointed to cook in the school itself? They can cook as much as the children need. We as parents are interested in that.”

The Block Education Officer for Anekal also agrees that school-based kitchens are preferable to meet students’ needs. “Yes, we all know that when children have hot food cooked in the school, they eat more quantity. We enjoy food when it’s hot. Still we get many requests from schools to have centralised kitchens because they find it difficult to manage on a day to day basis,” he says. 

During the team’s visits to schools, no teachers were seen eating the food provided by the centralised kitchens. Teachers say that they eat but we didn’t actually see them eating except when it was a school based kitchen. A teacher in a government girls school says, “Taste is important. We all use onion and garlic at home in our cooking. Children get bored when the taste is the same every day.”

But despite this, a large number of school managements prefer centralised kitchens instead of school-based ones. The predominant reason appears to be delayed payments by the government, and overworked staff.

At a school-based kitchen in Anekal district, the head cook, who many call Ajji, says, “I don’t feel happy about ‘namma’ children eating food brought from these companies. We have heard many complaints from other schools. The food is cold and bland.” 

But she is also aware that school authorities face a daily struggle to manage the logistics of the mid-day meal programme. Many MDM workers received only Rs 2,500 per month, and even that is often delayed for three to four months. Several protests have been organised by mid-day meal workers demanding better salaries, job security and the elimination of private players.

Why quality and taste matter

The NGO Akshaya Patra has come under fire for serving only ‘satvik’ meals that are bland, monotonous and lacking nutritional value, to children under the MDM scheme. This is despite the fact that, according to government data, a majority of children in the schools visited are SC/ST and OBC, and are culturally-accustomed to eating meat, eggs, onion and garlic at their homes. Many complaints have also been made about the quality and consistency of the rice provided by Akshaya Patra. 

And it’s not just Akshaya Patra. Children eating in schools supplied by JSS matta, Mysore, say that the food is monotonous. In DJ Halli, students say that the food provided by Akshaya Patra is ‘pheeka’ (tasteless) and the salan is too watery. 

Geetha, a mother, says “I have never seen onion and garlic in the food even though they have health benefits.” Her opinions are validated by a study conducted by Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysore, which states that "both garlic and onion were evidenced to have a significant promoting influence on the bioaccessibility of iron and zinc from food grains, when included at levels normally encountered during cooking." 

The issue of low consumption, wastage, bland and monotonous taste has been raised by the State Food Commission, the CEO of Bangalore Urban Zilla Panchayat as well as the Joint Director, Mid-Day Meals. Letters have also been submitted to the Chief Secretary and Principal Secretary, Karnataka demanding that contractual obligations be enforced.

When caste and rigid social structures get in the way

It is hard to miss the eagerness and enthusiasm of children when the word egg is mentioned. Ammu, whose daughter Monisha studies at a school in DJ Halli, says she went to the same school as her daughter. “Back then, they used to prepare food in the school and also give us eggs. Eggs are good for children and help them to grow better,” she says. 

For the last seven to eight years, the Karnataka government has not provided eggs for MDMs, despite repeated demands from civil societies, parents, child rights commissions and students. 

Is there really a need for ‘evidence’ to establish the multiple benefits of providing eggs to children as part of the MDM? What’s clear is that eggs are being denied to some of the poorest children in the country, and experts say this is an intrinsic form of government-sponsored caste discrimination without any scientific or nutritional basis.

Hulikunte Murthy, a teacher, writer and activist, says he sees a conspiracy around the MDM. He says that the mid-day meal scheme protects the Constitutional rights of some of the poorest children and has a very crucial role in addressing malnutrition. He however feels that the MDM has become extremely politicised and an ‘invisible hand’ is bringing in indoctrination which adversely affects the malnourished children. “The MDM helps with nutrition and enrolment in schools. However casteism and a negligence about the poor is an injustice to the poor and constitutional rights are being violated. The idea that there should be no onion, garlic eggs in the MDM as prescribed by a minority community on a majority amounts to religious diktats. It is a strange conspiracy. In the meantime the mid-day meal workers receive low salaries and have been raising this issue. Instead of addressing the issue, their rights are being further violated. Everyone knows that these organisations receive government funds but the MDM they provide is being treated like prasada (divine food). There is also a very unscientific indoctrination process on the minds of children that their mental faculty will be adversely affected by eating eggs, onions, garlic, masala etc. People who impose these cultures on government schools themselves don’t send their children to these schools and this is known to all officials.”

He goes on to say that vendors who violate government norms should have their contracts cancelled. School based kitchens should be set up to ensure employment. ”If this doesn’t happen” he says “even the few children who are successfully coming up from these marginalised communities will not be seen in the future”.

The bottom line is that most of the nutritional diseases in India are preventable – not with tablets, fortification, genetic modification, sprinkles, powders, therapeutic foods, and the like, but with access to good quality food and animal-source proteins without the burden of cultural, ideological, social and financial obstructions. 

Dr Sylvia Karpagam is a public health doctor and researcher, of inter-caste background, working on Right to Food and Right to Health, particularly of marginalised communities.

Views expressed are the author's own