ISKCON NGO Akshaya Patra, a partner in the midday meal scheme, is opposed to the use of kitchen staples onion & garlic in food.
Bengaluru: The Karnataka government is under pressure from civil society organisations to cancel its midday meal contract with the Akshaya Patra Foundation over the latter’s refusal to use onion and garlic in the preparations it offers students.
In a letter to the H.D. Kumaraswamy government, the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and the Right to Food campaign have said that “religious diktats cannot supersede the application of established principles of the right… to midday meals schemes”.
Akshaya Patra, a non-profit run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), a partner in the midday meal scheme across the country, oversees five districts in Karnataka — Bengaluru, Mysuru, Ballari, Hubli and Mangaluru — where it serves an estimated 4.43 lakh government school students.
Dr Vandana Prasad, the joint convenor of the Delhi-based Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, said this was “yet another instance of Akshaya Patra refusing to sign a memorandum of understanding on the basis of their organisational principles”.
“We are talking about the basic principles of right to food…” she said.
“Why should children from five districts be discriminated against only because they are being served by Akshaya Patra,” she asked. “It is important to understand that they cannot curtail an individual’s freedom of choice to eat what they want.
“After all… it is the taxpayers’ money that is being used to provide for the midday meal scheme, so who is Akshaya Patra to decide on their behalf?”
The administration is reportedly not ready to snap the contract with Akshaya Patra yet. The midday meal scheme has helped increase the number of admissions in government schools, said an official from the chief minister’s office, adding that a decision of this magnitude should be taken carefully.
However, the row is holding up the signing of the agreement for 2018-19, even though the agency continues to serve midday meals in its designated areas.
Tamasic vs sattvic
The row began with the state government issuing a recommendation to partner organisations of the midday meal to include onion and garlic in the food preparations.
The recommendation was based on feedback received from the Karnataka State Food Commission following a survey of government schools that was meant to gauge the nutritional value of food served as part of the midday meals.
Among other observations, the panel noted the absence of onion and garlic in the midday meals served at some schools, and urged their inclusion to make meals tastier and more nutritious.
However, Akshaya Patra took objection as onion and garlic are identified as “tamasic” in Ayurveda and the Upanishads, which means food items that can trigger lethargy and negative emotions.
Akshaya Patra only believes in serving “sattvic” food cooked with organic, vegetarian ingredients, a diet believed to have the opposite effect of its tamasic equivalent.
“The meal that Akshaya Patra gives has all the nutrients, micronutrients and oxidants that one needs,” ISKCON spokesperson Naveen Neerada Dasa told The Print.
“We have conducted thorough research on this,” he added. “We have worked on it [the diet] scientifically. We are in collaboration with top nutrition laboratories, which agree that our food is wholesome.”
When ThePrint asked ISKCON about reports that they would back out of the deal with the state government, it was noncommittal.
The government letter sent to the NGO with the onion and garlic recommendation is yet to elicit a response.
ISKCON’s Neerada Dasa confirmed to ThePrint that they had received the letter, and said they would be responding to it soon, “after considering all their options”.
Speaking to the media, M.R. Maruthi, the joint director of Karnataka’s midday meal scheme, said Akshaya Patra had violated the terms of their agreement by withholding the two items from meals, but added that their letter was just meant to convey a recommendation.
“A few questions were raised by the food commission as to why onion and garlic were not being used [in the meal],” said Maruthi.
“Based on the commission’s observations, we have written to all the [midday meal partner] organisations that do not use them in meals. This is a letter of recommendation, and not an order,” he added.
The ISKCON representative said the government should “understand our intent”.
“If there are any issues, we can sort them out. If there is feedback, we are ready to satisfy the state and the Centre’s recommendations, but one should understand our intent,” Dasa said.
“Do you know that we serve the world’s biggest madrassa in Jaipur?” he added. “We have invested close to Rs 15 crore per kitchen. All this, because our only objective is to serve hot, nutritious food for all and we are committed to do so.”
‘Just taste enhancers’
Dieticians largely weigh in on Akshaya Patra’s side, saying onion and garlic are additives that enhance taste.
As far as their nutritional value is concerned, there are nuts and fibres that can provide the same effect as onion and garlic, they add.
“There is no harm if you don’t add onion and garlic [to your meals],” said Hema Arvind, chief dietician at the M.S. Ramaiah Medical College and Hospital in Bengaluru.
“Garlic is supposed to be good for your cholesterol. There are other foods that can help in the same,” he added. “It is a particular nutrient in garlic that helps… the component can be found in other food items or vegetables.”
Refuse to serve eggs
The Karnataka controversy is the second within months to hit Akshaya Patra, which, according to its website, helps provide midday meals to 17 lakh students in nearly 15,000 schools.
The foundation reached a truce with the Odisha government after a row over its refusal to serve students two eggs per week as part of the meal.
Under the agreement, the schools will procure the eggs, while Akshaya Patra will bear the costs.