Bengaluru: ISKCON’s Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF), which provides midday meals to schools across India, has run into rough weather once again following a report in The Hindu that students found the food served too “bland”.
The allegation reignites a controversy Akshaya Patra has been fighting since last year, centred on its refusal to use Indian kitchen staples garlic and onions in the meals it prepares.
ThePrint looks at the role Akshaya Patra plays in the midday meal scheme, which is meant to encourage students to stay in schools, and the row its ingredient choices have thrown up.
Calories on the plate
Akshaya Patra, which is run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), prepares midday meals for 17.6 lakh students across 42 locations in 12 states.
The cost per meal is shared by the government and Akshaya Patra in all 12 states: In Karnataka, a plate of the hot meal served costs Rs 14.33, of which Rs 5.87 comes from the state government while the remaining Rs 8.46 is raised by Akshaya Patra through donations.
According to Union Human Resource Development Ministry (MHRD) guidelines, a primary school child is to be served 450 calories in each meal — 12 grams of protein, 100 grams of foodgrains, 20 grams of pulses, 50 grams of vegetables, 5 grams of oil and fat, and salt and condiments, as needed.
For upper primary school students, the intake is supposed to be 700 calories — 20 grams of protein, 150 grams of foodgrains, 30 grams of pulses, 75 grams of vegetables, 7.5 grams of oil and fat, and salt and condiments, as needed.
The ministry does not specify what items are to be provided to children, though the Karnataka government has asked vendors to use onions and garlic in a bid to bring uniformity in the meals served.
Even though it insists that it follows the central government’s guidelines, Akshaya Patra has come under criticism in Karnataka for shunning the use of onions and garlic despite state guidelines.
The organisation justifies this as stemming from its belief in the Ayurvedic principle of ‘sattvic’ food — cooked with organic, vegetarian ingredients. Onion and garlic are considered ‘tamasic’, that is, items that can trigger lethargy and negative emotions.
According to Akshaya Patra, the hot midday meals it serves in schools across India have more nutrition than what these two ingredients can provide — and they claim they are upfront about the fact when they tie up with state governments.
“When it comes to children, we follow what the MHRD and state government say,” Naveena Neerada Dasa, head of strategic affairs and communications for ISCKON, told ThePrint. “We follow their instructions and try to add a few more food items to help the child. For example, the government does not say we should give curds or fruits, but we provide that in every meal,” Neerada Dasa added.
“The rice, milk and oil that we serve are all fortified (with minerals). It is necessary for a child’s growth,” he said. “It is not specified by the MHRD that we provide fortified grains, but we do.”
Officials of the not-for-profit say that they understand garlic helps blood absorb iron and zinc, but claim that their meals include alternatives that do the same work: Turmeric, drumsticks, and green leafy vegetables.
In Karnataka, the organisation serves 4.5 lakh students across five districts.
‘Imposing religious beliefs’
In December 2018, the Jana Swasthya Abhiyan and the Right To Food campaign wrote to the MHRD and Karnataka Chief Minister, asking them to terminate the midday meal contract with Akshaya Patra.
Right to Food activists say Akshaya Patra is “imposing their religious beliefs on children”.
Dr Vandana Prasad, a public health practitioner and joint convenor of the Delhi-based Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, told ThePrint that Akshaya Patra could not set its own limitations.
“Today, it is no eggs, onions and garlic, tomorrow it will be something else,” she said. “But the point is, they have no right to decide for a million people across the country.”
As pointed out by Prasad, Akshaya Patra has also courted scrutiny for keeping eggs out of the menu, but allowed a concession in Odisha last year in light of the increased criticism: The arrangement lets the state government provide two eggs/week to students as a source of protein. The eggs are sourced by the government and not Akshaya Patra.
Neerada Dasa, meanwhile, refuted the allegation of their decision having religious connotations. “We also serve madrasas, so where is the imposition of religion coming in?” he said.
‘Happy with the food’
K. Jairaj, a retired IAS officer whose NGO for children with special needs avails of the midday meal scheme, told ThePrint that he had heard no complaints from the kids about the food.
“The children in my NGO are so happy with the food. We have not received any complaints,” he said.
“We have extended the contract by another five years,” added Jairaj, who was involved in pulling off the Akshaya Patra scheme for Bengaluru schools as commissioner for the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike.
After the furore last year, food samples from Akshaya Patra meals were sent to the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) for examination.
The NIN submitted its report in February, stating that the nutritive value of an Akshaya Patra meal “certainly meets and often exceeds the prescribed energy and protein requirements”. NIN scientists also endorsed the “high safety standards” employed in food preparation.
However, Right to Food campaigners have opposed the report, stating that it was not based on any empirical evidence and didn’t factor in the testimony of children.
The Hindu report, published last week, led several high-profile voices to weigh in on Akshaya Patra’s side.
.@AkshayaPatra has been a spectacular success in nourishing the school-going children. Unfortunately, some people are very committed to find fault with all that works well in this country. -Sg #Akshayapatra
— Sadhguru (@SadhguruJV) June 2, 2019
The more u calumnize, the more we will donate to @AkshayaPatra. Let's see who wins! I'm a regular monthly donor, but increased my meagre donation just to support TAPF n put my money where my mouth is! @TVMohandasPaihttps://t.co/Jvhd2OCKhx
— Vikram Sampath (@vikramsampath) June 4, 2019
Akshaya Patra CEO Sridhar Venkat said the organisation was hurt every time a controversy emerges around the midday meal scheme.
“Nutrition is something that is very close to our heart and we advocate and live by it,” he added, “We provide nutritious food. We have our own [scrutiny] team and have been endorsed by others. However, we also urge people to try our food, and then give us feedback. We are always open to feedback.”
This report has been updated with additional information, as well as to reflect the accurate cost of each midday meal.