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Why onion and garlic have become too hot to handle for Karnataka

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Karnataka govt wants onion & garlic in midday meals, but NGO Akshaya Patra has refused. Now CM Kumaraswamy wants the people to help resolve the matter.

Bengaluru: The Karnataka government has been at loggerheads with NGO Akshaya Patra over the question of serving onion and garlic in mid-day meals, and Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy is now ready to take the vexed issue to the people’s court.

Speaking to ThePrint, Kumaraswamy said he was ready to open the issue for public debate, and let the people decide whether or not they want the ISKCON-run NGO’s onion-and-garlic-free food served to their children.

What’s the issue?

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, a non-profit organisation, is a midday meal partner of the Karnataka government in five districts — Bengaluru, Mysuru, Ballari, Hubli and Mangaluru.

The Karnataka State Food Commission conducted a survey of government schools, and found that onion and garlic were absent from the meals served at schools where Akshaya Patra was the providing agency. The panel urged for them to be included to make meals tastier and more nutritious.

Akshaya Patra refused, owing to its belief in the Ayurvedic principle of providing ‘sattvic’ food — cooked with organic, vegetarian ingredients. Onion and garlic are considered ‘tamasic’, that is, items that can trigger lethargy and negative emotions.

Naveena Neerada Dasa, ISKCON’s head of strategic communication and projects, told ThePrint that it is Akshaya Patra’s “endeavour to promote good health and nutrition”, and that it “will continue to follow the prescribed norms set by both the state and central government”.

The state government, meanwhile, began facing pressure from civil rights organisations like the Delhi-based Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and the Right to Food Campaign to cancel its contract with Akshaya Patra. They insist that Akshaya Patra has no right to decide what food has to be served, and cannot impose “religious diktats” on a scheme that embodies one’s right to food.

The organisations have also spoken about the question of nutrition, though dieticians say onion and garlic only enhance taste — their nutritional value can easily be replaced by nuts or fibres of different kinds.

Also read: Karnataka civil society groups want govt to dump ISKCON NGO over onion-garlic row

Central guidelines

The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, which oversees the midday meal scheme, does not specify what items are to be provided to children, be it eggs or onion or garlic.

The ministry’s guidelines merely state that a primary school child be served food which has a nutritional value of 450 calories — 12 grams of protein, 100 grams of food grains, 20 grams of pulses, 50 grams of vegetables, 5 grams of oil and fat, and salt and condiments as per need.

For upper primary schoolchildren, the intake is supposed to be 700 calories — 20 grams of protein, 150 grams of food grains, 30 grams of pulses, 75 grams of vegetables , 7.5 grams of oil and fat, and salt and condiments as per need.

Seeking experts’ opinion

The Karnataka government has been reluctant to cancel its contract with Akshaya Patra, since the midday meal scheme has helped increase the number of admissions in government schools.

It seems to have decided that the only way this matter can be resolved is if it is opened to public debate, rather than be coerced to take a decision based on the observations of civil rights organisations.

Kumaraswamy has now decided to seek the opinion of various stakeholders, including school teachers, headmasters, food scientists and dieticians, on whether there is an absolute need to add onion and garlic in the food that is being served.

“The question we are raising is whether it would cause any major deficiencies to children if (onion and garlic) are not added to their midday meals. We will be able to take an informed stand only after we receive adequate information on it,” said Kumaraswamy.

“We will ask food experts, doctors and nutritionists on these aspects, and then take a decision. Let’s not rush into any decision.”

Alternative suggestions 

While this controversy rages, officials at the Department of Primary and Secondary Education have come up with a new idea to bypass the onion-garlic question and yet enhance children’s diet.

Preliminary discussions are on to add fruits to the menu, so that children can have a well-rounded meal.

Sources in the department also said the Mysuru-based Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) has been asked to analyse the nutritional value of onion and garlic, and find if there are alternative fruits or vegetables that can provide the same nutrition.

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