A group of signatories — 10 organizations and 94 individuals* — including activists, academicians, lawyers, doctors, journalists and researchers, have sent an open letter to scientists of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), asking it to withdraw its report submitted to Government of Karnataka regarding the appropriateness of the food being supplied by Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) as part of Mid-day Meals scheme.
APF has been supplying food to 2,814 schools across six district in Karnataka as part of Mid-day meals scheme which is fully-funded by Government of India and Government of Karnataka. A sister concern of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), it has refused to include onion and garlic in the food supplied to schools because it considers these ingredients to be ‘tamasik’ (evoking negativity).
The signatories believe, this is in violation of not only the menu prescribed by the Government of Karnataka but also the terms of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by APF itself. It also violates Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) Guidelines which prohibit propagation of private beliefs through Mid-day Meal scheme, not to speak of the basic tenets of the Constitution.
Following complaints by the Karnataka State Food Commission and civil society groups, the Government directed APF to comply with the prescribed menu. Subsequently, APF approached higher officials in the State government, which sought technical advice from the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI). While CFTRI refused to comment on most of the questions regarding nutritional adequacy, taste, diversity, safety and hygiene etc. of the food being supplied by APF in the absence of a systematic empirical study, the singatories feel, NIN offered completely unfounded and biased comments on the food supplied by APF without so much as visiting a single school or talking to a single student eating this food.
A pivotal scientific institution providing technical inputs for nutritional policy making in the country, the signatories feel, NIN providing technical inputs without any rigorous scientific field evaluation does injustice not only to its reputation as an independent institution but has the potential of adversely affecting the nutritional status of several children, some of them from extremely deprived conditions. They urge NIN to immediately withdraw the report submitted to the Government of Karnataka, pending a systematic field evaluation.
Text of the letter:
We the undersigned have held the National Institute of Nutrition in high regard for its contributions to nutrition research and evidence-building, and have the used its work as part our effort to secure right to food for all citizens of India. We are therefore dismayed at the unscientific, biased and irresponsible response sent by the Institute through its Director to the request from Government of Karnataka regarding assessment of nutritional value of food supplied by Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF).
APF has been supplying food to 2,814 schools in Karnataka as part of the Mid-day meals scheme (MDM) which, it needs to be emphasized, is a scheme fully funded by Government of India and Government of Karnataka. The scheme aims at providing students studying in the schools, a nutritious meal containing locally and culturally relevant food, which children will find tasty enough to eat in adequate quantity.
APF, on the other hand, has refused to provide eggs or use onion and garlic in the food supplied because it considers these foods as ‘tamasik’. Since onions and garlic are part of the traditional foods like sambhar in Karnataka, and hence has been included as part of the menu prescribed by the State government, their non-inclusion by APF was raised by the Karnataka State Food Commission and civil society groups.
Following this, the Government of Karnataka had asked National Institute of Nutrition and Central Food Technical Research Institute for its technical inputs on nutritional adequacy, bioavailability, diet diversity, taste and food safety and hygiene.
In their response, CFTRI has refused to comment on the nutritional quality, taste, diversity and safety of food supplied by APF instead asking for sufficient time and resources to do a proper assessment. NIN, on the other hand, to our utter shock and dismay, has made sweeping statements praising APF, without carrying out any systematic scientific study.
No empirical data was collected on the quantity and quality of ingredients used or amount consumed and amount wasted by children to certify food supplied by APF as nutritionally adequate. Instead, a paper menu submitted by APF, was considered evidence enough to comment on an aspect of the scheme which have nutritional impact on lakhs of children!
Even more shockingly, without visiting a single school or speaking to children consuming the food, NIN has taken the unwarranted liberty of commenting on the taste and safety of the food even which fly in the face of observations by State Food Commission of monotony of the food supplied by APF or media reports of children vomiting after consuming the food on some occasions.
The eagerness exhibited by NIN to offer opinions in this case, in absence of any scientific field evaluation, raises serious questions regarding NIN’s credibility and independence.
In view of NIN’s history and tradition of rigorous scientific research and considering that the nutritional future of the lakhs of children studying in government schools and availing mid-day meals has been undermined by the unscientific report submitted by NIN to Government of Karnataka, we urge you to withdraw the report immediately pending a systematic field evaluation of the food being supplied by APF.