When Harsimrat Kaur Badal, India’s Food Processing (FP) minister and one of the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) many first-time ministers met with Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer last month, no one would have expected the meeting to snowball into the new government’s first intra-cabinet skirmish.
But it did. Smriti Irani, who has as many passionate supporters as she has vocal detractors, reportedly brought the meeting to the notice of the Prime Minister’s Office, complaining that Badal was acting beyond her jurisdiction.
Irani was referring to Badal’s comments that PepsiCo could play a bigger role in helping India’s much talked about Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) by developing nutritious food. The Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry, which Irani heads, took strong objection to it, almost immediately issuing a statement that the HRD minister had no such plans and reiterating that the MDM was its business and not the FPM’s.
The HRD ministry, to drive home its point, cited a 2001 Supreme Court judgment, which said that only freshly cooked hot meals were to be used in mid-day meals for children.
Fresh hot meals over packaged food, any day. End of discussion, one would assume? Hardly.
It is on an uncharacteristically humid August afternoon that we go to a government-run primary school in south Delhi. Located next to a humongous garbage bin sleekly covered with advertisements of a dance reality show, this government school is nothing like the decrepit blocks of bricks you’d imagine a sarkari school to be.
Brightly painted walls, concrete washrooms, clean corridors and colourful seesaws – it could pass off as any public school.
The idea is to sample some of that freshly cooked food that everyone seems to be so sure of. Getting inside the compound is the easy part. But once in, we are sheepish; the kids look at us with suspicion as they polish off the puri-chole (fried bread and curried chickpeas) on their plates.
We do what we do when in doubt – furnish the press card. It doesn’t work. One of the teachers overseeing the kids eat their puri-chole vehemently says no.
“We don’t trust journalists; we don’t want to be in trouble later.” Another teacher, who’s less cautious, and even less judicious with her words, is on a mission to convince us that the food is beyond good, without letting us taste any of it of course. “The chole is really good – even we eat it,” she insists, much to the displeasure of the others. “She means we always taste it to make sure it is good,” quips the one who’s persistent that we don’t and shouldn’t get to eat.
When we ask them what they think of packaged food like biscuits, all four teachers, middle-aged women who’re in all probability mothers themselves, are dismissive. “What good can biscuits be? Ask your mother what would she rather prefer.”
The one who looks senior-most tells us that when biscuits used to be part of the meals provided, they’d often be past their expiry date and spoilt. “Yes, hygiene is a problem, but the solution is not packaged food definitely. The biscuits that used to come before were invariably always rotten and infested. And the food is great – the kids get rice and dal, which is as healthy as it gets.”
There are, however, not very specific answers when we point out that while the need for carbohydrates are being taken care of, what about vitamins, minerals and proteins? Schools in Delhi don’t yet serve eggs, though some states like Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal do, and there is a recurring complaint from many who’re closely associated to the MDMS that the khichdi (a mix of pulses and rice that is often served in rural areas) has very little pulse if any at all. “The children get kidney beans so that takes care of proteins, but there definitely is a need for fruits and vegetables, which the kids don’t get currently,” she admits.
“But no biscuits and packaged food. Never.”
In the national capital meals are prepared in fairly well-supervised, centralised kitchens and transported in refrigerated vans. Children get food that is at least edible – if not supremely healthy – so it’s easy to take a position on its merits.
But in places where kitchens are localised and mid-day meals consist of an ungainly concoction of abundant amounts of rice and miniscule quantities of pulses – and that is pretty much most of rural India – such absolute positions are a luxury that may just be a little detached from ground reality.
Anand Sankar, a former journalist who is in the process of setting up an non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Kalap, Uttarakhand, to help local communities, wrote the following passionate and unmistakably angry note on his Facebook page in response to the outrage that swamped social media following Badal and Nooyi’s meeting:
Predictably, there is a lot of frothing on social media on the meeting the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had with Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo Chairman. The reaction has been familiar, “Oh, look no surprise! Modi wants to handover our children to PepsiCo’”
It will be no surprise that not many of these armchair commentators have gone anywhere near a government school (which is not supported by Akshaya Patra or similar NGO) and had the mid-day meal with the children there. They will be served, there will be plenty of rice! Yes that is the problem, plenty of rice in unsupported government school mid-day meals!
For years there has been a campaign to keep mid-day meals ‘freshly cooked’, without offering a single solution on how to reliably add protein to 107 million meals. Knowing ground realities — which read like — meal preferences, supply chain issues, storage issues and finally corruption — we continue to dodge the issue of protein poverty. We are still stuck with ‘filling stomachs’, but with what are we doing it?
Unsupported mid-day meals are almost 100% percent carbohydrate, with a sprinkling of vegetable protein in the form of a watery dal (boiled pulses). There is no scope to serve milk or eggs reliably. Unspent FCI (Food Corporation of India) stocks are dumped at schools, boiled and served. There is no budget to buy vegetables by the local school master at market prices and sometimes barely enough funds to buy spices.
Every time you sit around and go on about how we can’t produce anything but cricketers, there is only one reason for it – protein poverty. We ain’t going to produce no athlete or footballer. Our kids just never build muscles, where can they start training? You build athletic strength from ages 8-16. What do our kids, especially from rural areas eat in that age group? — Carbs. Sports Authority of India can’t work miracles with undernourished post-16 year olds.
I am not even going near vitamins and micro-nutrients, and how we will get them.
This crisis, right now, needs a quick out-of-the-packet solution which can work around the ground realities mentioned above. There is nothing wrong in leveraging the massive food processing machinery that companies like PepsiCo own to produce supplements to mid-day meals. We need to set standards and have a strong framework to regulate the contract given to a PepsiCo or someone else. The need for protein and nutritional supplements is immediate, I don’t think anyone can disagree with that. There are only a certain handful of companies unfortunately who can execute this.
Yes, we need to work at local solutions, and in the long-term only they are the answer. We need to become a ‘protein culture’. I am personally working on a solution right now to supplement the mid-day meal at a small government school deep in the Himalayas. Every local school unfortunately would require its own custom-made solution and kids are growing while the solution gets to fruition.
Right now, I would not refuse a packed protein supplement for our school kids.
A major concern, as Reetika Khera – economist and social scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi – tells us, is “fortification”. Fortification, means adding specific micronutrients to food, and is the marketing buzzword that companies like Britannia and PepsiCo aggressively use to promote their products as healthy.
Fortification, though, is highly contentious. For instance, wheat (a major ingredient in biscuits) contains phytic acids (the storage form of phosphorus), which are basically binders that bind metal ions like minerals, iron, zinc et al. Hence, it is often considered an anti-nutrient because it binds minerals in the digestive tract, making them less available to our bodies – thus rendering, by some accounts, fortification in flour completely useless.
However, phytic acid is mostly in the bran of the flour, and refined flour (which is what is used in making biscuits) has very little or no phytic acid. A study by The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, in fact, does validate certain iron fortificants in biscuits for populations consuming high-phytate (phytic acid) diets.
Biscuits, though, remains a taboo word among most stakeholders. “Biscuits are unhealthy per se, whether fortified or not,” maintains Vandana Prasad of Public Health Resource Network.
The response to our email to Prasad, is detailed with answers in caps. Her answer to my first query on whether there is any merit whatsoever in providing packaged food in MDMs is very categorical – No. Not even when we consider issues of hygiene? “Considering the many advantages of freshly cooked hot meals and the many disadvantages of pre-packaged food, it is better to handle the hygiene issue through improvement in necessary infrastructure, capacity building and participation of students and SMCs [School Managing Committees],” she says. “How do we feed our kids at home? With pre-packaged food and biscuits?”
The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) is a Switzerland-based foundation “with a vision of a world without malnutrition”. Created in 2002 at a Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Children, it claims to “mobilise public-private partnerships and provide financial and technical support to deliver nutritious foods to the population segment most at risk of malnutrition”. GAIN, which has operations in India too, is an active advocate of food fortification.
According to its India fact sheet, it is actively involved along with Naandi Foundation, an NGO, in providing MDMs in the states of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Incidentally, children in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh receive chapattis made with fortified wheat flour as part of GAIN’s outreach programme – the consequence of which need not be beneficial for children.
As mentioned earlier, unrefined wheat (atta) – which is what is usually used in our country to prepare chapatti – contains phytates, making it a not-so-desirable medium for any sort of fortification. In Andhra Pradesh, where the diet is largely rice-based, GAIN, in collaboration with the Naandi Foundation, provides children fortified rice, which it claims has led to increased hemoglobin levels in children.
However, a report by the National Institute of Nutrition contradicts that claim. Down To Earth magazine, in a 2012 report, quoted a scientist from the institute stating that though there was marked increase in the level of stored iron in body, there wasn’t any significant additional impact on hemoglobin status.
The Britannia Nutrition Foundation, which seeks to “address the issue regarding child malnutrition”, states that back in 2007 Britannia “developed a specially designed 5 mg Iron Fortified Tiger Biscuit, which in association with Naandi Foundation, Hyderabad and Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) Geneva, was used to supplement the Andhra Pradesh Government’s mid-day meals”. That was something that didn’t go down well with most civil society stakeholders. Many social scientists and food activists, led by the Right to Food Campaign, claimed that GAIN was using its influence to forward corporate interests.
Civil society representatives’ concerns are justified. GAIN, for long, has been denied civil-society status at the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the ground that it promoted corporate business interest. It was only in 2014 that GAIN was recognised as an NGO, after it renamed its corporate tie-ups from “Business Alliance” to “Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Business Network”. However, industry representation continues to be replete on its board. It has tie-ups with a wide range of companies like Unilever, Cargill, Danone, Mars, and, of course, Britannia.
GAIN, according to the SUN website, assists the private food industry to enter into partnerships with governments – an arrangement that civil society groups in India are understandably uncomfortable with. A pamphlet by the Right To Food Campaign on “Commercial Influence in treating Hunger and Malnutrition” strongly condemns GAIN. It underlines that “groups like GAIN trying to influence national policies and programs highlight the vulnerability of our public food distribution systems to corporate interests”.
The Bihar tragedy of 2013 was a rude reminder that there are serious problems with MDMS. A follow-up ground report by Down to Earth revealed that very little had been done to tackle the real problem of pesticide contamination, which was responsible for the death of at least 23 children, even a year after the incident. Infrastructure development, without adequate training, is an exercise in futility.
To be sure, feeding millions of children in our country, and that too with healthy food, is a gargantuan task by any standard. Artificially fortified pre-packed food may not be a solution, but surely a blanket ban on it, without taking into account ground realities, cannot be the way forward either.
Yes, biscuits are definitely unhealthy, but so is a meal full of carbohydrates in a nation that is severely diabetes-prone. The debate on nutrition and the right means of providing it to our children is a complex one and as important as any national issue. Stakeholders – corporations, the government and civil society – need to let go of personal prejudices to find a solution. Action must be taken on an urgent basis, because every one in three of the world’s malnourished children lives in India.
That, as our previous prime minister had acknowledged, is a huge national shame.