Akshaya Patra and the Mysterious Vanishing of Onion and Garlic for School Kids
The states are paying Akshaya Patra Foundation for midday meals in schools. They have every right to expect proper, modern food to be served to the students.
- Total Shares
The controversy around food provided by NGO Akshaya Patra under the school mid-day meal scheme is only gaining steam.
The opinions between the warring factions go as far on the one end as accusing the NGO of highhandedness — by providing only non-onion and non-garlic food — that is 'almost Brahminical' in character, and, on the other end, hailing it for providing clean and hygienic food to around 1.8 million children across 15,000 schools spread over 12 states.
The Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) is a not-for-profit organisation run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) that implements the mid-day meal scheme in government schools and government-aided schools. The foundation found itself in the eye of controversy after an article in The Hindu claimed that school children in Karnataka were not happy with the food provided by the organisation. The reason? The food lacked garlic and onion that added a familiar and liked flavour.
The foundation has been a mid-day meal partner of the Karnataka government in five districts — Bengaluru, Mysuru, Ballari, Hubli and Mangaluru.
It is the second time in less than six months that the foundation has run into rough weather on this front. In December 2018, 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 in order to make meals tastier and more nutritious.
APF refused — it reportedly stated its (and its parent organisation ISKCON’s) belief in the Ayurvedic principle of providing food cooked with organic, vegetarian ingredients.
While Ayurveda permits the usage of onions and garlic, it is only for medicinal purposes, not as a food.
Naveena Neerada Dasa, ISKCON’s head of strategic communication and projects, reportedly said 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 same was echoed by TV Mohandas Pai, who is on the board of trustees of Akshaya Patra, who said, “The food supplied adheres to the nutritional standards laid down by Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). We don't put onion and garlic in our food as we follow Ayurveda system (Indian system) to make sure that we give healthy food to kids.”
The Right to Learn — and Eat: The mid-day meal is an integral part of state services for children. (Representational image: PTI)
Subsequently, on December 13, public health experts from the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA) and food security activists from the Right To Food Campaign (RTFC) wrote to the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD) and the Karnataka government, asking all contracts for the supply of mid-day meals given to Akshaya Patra — in Karnataka and other states — be scrapped.
The controversy erupted again after the said report in The Hindu, published on May 31, 2019.
Those in support of the foundation claim it is actually doing a great job, stepping in for the state government by providing meals to millions of kids across the country. Critics say the APF is merely a contractor engaged by the state government to provide mid-day meals — and is paid by the government for its services.
No free lunch
“The governments provide Rs 5.50 as making charges for each meal and allocates grain from Food Corporation of India (FCI),” says Pai. However, he adds, the government apparently only provides for the food and not for the other costs associated with the whole process.
"We spent Rs 400 crore to set up 43 kitchens across 12 states. The government did not give us money to set those up. It does not give us money for salaries and other social security expenses of our 5,500 employees and also for the delivery of food. There are over 550 vehicles used daily to deliver the food. Despite all these, we are the lowest cost provider of mid-day meal in the world," he reportedly stated.
Foundational Nutrition: The food little children get is part of their core nutrition. They deserve the most balanced meals. (Representational photo: PTI)
The Foundation’s 2017-18 annual report states that it received Rs 205 crore (52% of the total funding) from 10 state governments — these include Karnataka (Rs 72 crore), Gujarat (Rs 41.5 crore), Maharashtra, UP (12% of total contributions), Andhra Pradesh, Telangana (10% of total contributions), Assam, Odisha and Rajasthan. It also receives Rs 170 crore reportedly from donations from corporates, many providing funding under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, Trusts and reportedly individuals like NR Narayanmurthy (Infosys) and Mohandas Pai himself. Another Rs 15 crore came from interest income.
A majority of the fund comes from the central government, which is spent through the states. In 2016-17, the government contribution was reportedly as high as 55%.
The contribution from states saw an increase of 13.6% in 2017-18. The increase is attributed to a 9% jump in the overall volume of meals served during the year.
"Eggs are allowed"
Given the organisation's rigid dietary rules though, there are some instances of flexibility as well. For instance, if some states want to give eggs with the meals, APF has no objection, says Pai. “The only condition is that states will have to provide egg directly to students.” Some states like Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Telangana do provide eggs in their mid-day meals.
Given this, the foundation's tough stance on garlic and onion then defies logic.
After all, the organisation is there to provide nutritious meals to school kids, the cost of which is borne in the most by the government. If the organisation was funding these meals entirely on its own, it would have some right to decide what it would serve. But, in this scenario, it is merely a service provider — and not the arbiter of the children's' diets or taste. Therefore, it should drop any coyness over pushing Ayurvedic diets at the kids and just give the school children the kind of meals it is paid to.
The fact of the matter is, Ayurveda itself never envisioned modern schooling where children of different social groups could mix and have an equal right to learn. When Ayurveda isn't determining the system of education itself, why on earth should it be allowed to determine some of the core, foundational nutrition small children get — as part of their right to modern education?
It's time we grew up. And no, we don't mean the school children.