According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2017, in India, over 190 million people are undernourished; that accounts for 14.5% of the country’s population.

Sridhar-Venkat

Malnutrition can be addressed by enhancing the nutritional standards of meals by including fortified rice or millets in the menu, said Shridhar Venkat – CEO, The Akshaya Patra Foundation. In an interaction with ETHealthworld, Venkat discusses on how undernourishment can be countered with the introduction of Millets in the mid-day meals.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation is a non-profit organisation headquartered in Bengaluru, that helps in the implementation of the Central government’s mid-day meal scheme in 14,173 schools across the country. 

India on nutrition map
According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2017, in India, over 190 million people are undernourished; that accounts for 14.5% of the country’s population. Children are the worst affected; ‘The State of the World's Children 2016’ Report by UNICEF ranks India 10th in terms of wasting and 17th in terms of stunting prevalence. While the UNICEF report takes into account children below the age of five, many school-aged children across the country are also battling hunger and malnutrition due to reasons ranging from poverty to lack of sanitation. Many of them are forced to go out and work while they should be studying at schools, thus missing on education as well and getting caught into the vicious cycle that poverty is. 

mid-day-meal
Importance of millets in mid-day meal

Malnutrition is a major concern in our country; while the ICDS programme seeks to address the same in children in the age-group of 0-6 (among others), the Mid-Day Meal Scheme seeks to address it in school-aged children by providing nutritious food. While the food provided as a part of the Mid-Day Meal Programme is nutritious, there is scope for further enhancing it. A crucial step in enhancing the nutritional standards of mid-day meals would be through the introduction of millets. Millets have been proven to be superior in nutritional value, enriched with the goodness of proteins, minerals, iron, calcium, zinc, dietary fibres, minerals, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B, and essential amino acids.

In Bengaluru and Hyderabad, we have implemented millet-based items in mid-day meals on a pilot basis. The plan is to extend the nutrition of millets to all our beneficiaries over the course of time.

The Government too, is positive about promoting millets. In 2017, the Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare sent a proposal to United Nations for declaring the year 2018 as ‘International Year of Millets’. Similarly, in Karnataka, we have implemented the pilot project in partnership with the State Government.

The advantages of incorporating millets in mid-day meals don’t just end there. Millets are dubbed the ‘smart crop of the 21st century,’ as they are eco-friendly, require less fertilisers and water, and can be produced indigenously. They are extremely favourable to farmers as they are drought-tolerant, pest-resistant, high-yielding, low-risk crops that require a low input cost.

Measures to reduce malnutrition and stunting in children
Both Central and State Governments are working towards eliminating hunger and malnutrition in the country by implementing various nutrition welfare programmes. The Integrated Child Development Services and Mid-Day Meal Scheme are designed to address the issue of malnutrition in specific age-groups. For example, the MDM programme guidelines stipulate 450 calories and 12g of protein and 700 calories and 20g of protein for children studying in class I to V and classes VI – VIII respectively. 

Together, ICDS and MDMS cover children in the age-group of 0-14 and adolescent girls (among others). So the first step we need to do is to ensure that all children come into the ambit of these and other such nutrition welfare programmes by enrolling them to anganwadis and schools. By reaching the population that has not yet been reached and vulnerable communities through a strategic plan of action and improved intervention and service quality, we can combat child malnutrition to a great extent.

Malnutrition can also be addressed by enhancing the nutritional value of meals by including fortified rice or millets in the menu. In our capacity as the implementing partner of the Mid-Day Meal Initiative, we have introduced ‘fortified rice’ in our meals where the FCI provided rice is processed in a blending mixer machine. Tons of rice kernel and rice powder are blended with emulsified mix of FSSAI specified micronutrient powders. This rice includes the prescribed amounts of nutrients: iron, vitamin A, B1, B3, B6, B9 and B12. This has been initiated in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh; Ahmedabad, Gujarat; and Mangalore, Karnataka. We also plan to extend these programmes to all our beneficiaries.

Challenges of the foundation
In India, we see immense diversity in cultural and geographical aspects. So the implementation of an initiative like the mid-day meal programme can be a challenging task. We need to consider the different palates that we cater to, feasibility of using technology, different geographies, etc. For example, it is a challenge to set up kitchens at remote locations due to terrain and connectivity. Instead we set up decentralised kitchens, which are small units typically catering to one or two schools, in these locations. We don’t want children to be deprived of nutritious food only because they reside in such remote areas.

Even in location where we have deployed the centralised system, the transportation time is also a challenge as we have to ensure that the food delivered is hot. Thus, we have to opt for route optimisation. When food is prepared on a large scale, due importance has to be given to its safe handling, preparation, and delivery. We adhere to Food Safety and Management System (FSMS) and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) to ensure the same. In order to prevent food contamination, our kitchen staff is directed to strictly follow certain hygiene practices.

Government has been supporting us with subsidies for material and conversion cost. We have to source funds from donors to set up and operate kitchens. The capital cost of setting up a single centralized kitchen (excluding land) for feeding 50,000 children is about Rs.10.50 to 11 Cr. When we are serving over 1.6 million children every day, we need to be prepared for the future and that confidence only comes with financial stability.

Then there are factors that are not in our control. In the school, for instance, the standards of hygiene of the place where the food is stored after we deliver it right until the moment it is served, can be improved. Similarly, due importance should be given to the quality of water these children drink when they have their meals.

future-vision
Future vision

Our mission is to feed 5 million children by 2020. We see ourselves working each day to reach this mission gradually. Along with our aim to eliminate classroom hunger, we intend to contribute to achieve the Global Sustainable Developmental Goals of Zero hunger and Quality Education by 2030.

We plan to increase the overall impact on Akshaya Patra’s beneficiaries of Mid-Day Meal Programme by introducing the ‘Model School’ project that will enhance community engagement and improved outlook towards education for our beneficiaries.

‘Giving Every Dream a Chance’ is a project which is a platform where we mentor beneficiaries with uncommon dreams. Initially, under this project, 3 students were mentored, 300+ students in 2018 and we want to extend this to 5000+ beneficiaries in the future. This is our ambitious project to build a nation of talented and confident individuals.

Source: Healthworld            Dated: July 10, 2018