Opinion

AkshayPatra controversy over midday meal: Food is about health, not religion

Food served to children in school should be decided by health experts and dieticians, not religious groups. In any case, onions and garlic are avoided by Jains and not by Hindus

Representative Image ()
Representative Image ()

Sujata Anandan

I have always liked eating at the restaurant run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Mumbai, particularly on festival days when they use special ingredients like ‘Sabudana’ to make their pooris and prepare the entire food in ghee rather than refined oil.

But my gluttony apart, on ordinary days I never thought they had any problems with food grown underground – like onion and garlic. Although it has been years since I have been to an ISKCON restaurant, I do not recall they had any problems providing carrots, radishes etc as salad and relishes (which generally need onions and garlic) and their spices lacked nothing in taste or sustenance.

ISKCON has been providing mid-day meals to schools for years now across states but the recent controversy over their insistence on satvik food without onion and garlic, I believe, is more influenced by Jainism than Hinduism.

Of late, the political insistence on certain kinds of food, including vegetarianism, is completely contrary to the facts established on the ground. Census reports, health surveys and recent statistical compilations all point to more than seventy per cent of India being non-vegetarian with another six to seven per cent eating eggs (though no meat), which is often the only source of protein to many Dalits and tribals, who would otherwise go highly undernourished.

However, imposing one’s culinary preferences on the people is neither new nor confined to present governments or just one political party. I recall when a restaurant was started on Marine Drive on the ground floor of a building occupied by former prime minister Morarji Desai, he had it shut down because the fumes from the chimney disturbed his taste buds. They offered to turn vegetarian but even that was offensive to the man who lived only on nuts, dried fruits and his own urine. They had to close shop and move elsewhere.

However, barely four years ago, at a housing society in North Mumbai there were violent clashes between Maharashtrians and Gujaratis when the latter insisted that one Maharashtrian family refrain from cooking fish for lunch as the Gujaratis in the society had organised a pooja that morning.

As Shiv Sainiks joined in the clash and police were called in, it was discovered that more Jains than Gujaratis living in that society had been having a running battle with Maharashtrians over their food habits and this had become the norm rather than the exception, not just in that suburb but across housing societies in Mumbai.

But while one can understand the issues some people might have with animal entrails strewn about the garbage and lack of hygiene in buildings where large sections of vegetarians reside, why people, and not just Maharashtrians and not just in Mumbai, are up in arms against the food Nazis is the insistence of many of their vegetarian neighbours at the avoidance of even items like onion and garlic.

While this seems to have got into the recipes of Akshay Patra, the insistence on Satvik food for children who might be undernourished is neither advisable from the nourishment point of view nor does it quite fit into the Hindu religious philosophy.

Satvik food traditionally was the preferred choice of only Brahmins because they led less active lives than others as they were mostly priests and teachers, were seated or led sedentary lives on most of their work days. Those who expended more energies were permitted the Raijsik food.

While none of us today lead sedentary lives of the past, children from poor families who are malnourished and expected to be active physically very much need the sustenance offered by nutritious protein rich food.

While there is no insistence by anyone on the serving of non-vegetarians meals in schools, if mid-day meals caterers go by the Jain imposition on Hindus society, potatoes, radish, carrots and other vegetables grown underground might also be in danger of disappearing from school menus and we might end up raising a nation of undernourished children fit for neither physical nor mental work in later life.

In any case, I do not understand why such contracts for provision of mid-day meals should be given to religious bodies who, in addition, look upon it as a charity rather than a health need for children.

There was a dual purpose why mid-day meals were introduced in Anganwadis and government and municipal schools in villages and cities. These are peopled mostly by children from extremely poor and tribal families or slums. In addition to their inability to afford even one square meal a day, the afternoon meals were also intended to keep the children in school. If

parents could save a meal on one, two or more kids every day, they had an incentive to keep the children going to school and thus ensure some basic education that would help the children in the future.

It may sound silly, but I have seen the eyes of deprived children in Anganwadis or even slums of Mumbai light up at the thought if an egg in their mid-day meal. They love the taste and look forward to school for that – what is the point of depriving a poor child (children of rich parents have no such issue) of taste in his or her food, simply because it does not suit the religious sentiment of one section of people in this country?

India is not a homogenous country and food habits vary from region to region and community to community even within the same religion or caste as, for example, in Maharashtra. Konkanastha Brahmins, because of their location, thrive on sea food. In the interiors of Maharashtra Chitpavan Brahmins may not eat even eggs.

So these contracts should be given to private caterers under strict monitoring and instructions from dieticians, doctors and health experts- and, of course, of school authorities who should make sure there are no cuts or scrimping in the interest of profits.

Much as I like the food at ISKCON, a group of monks and nuns cannot decide for children what they can or must not eat or consume. Food preferences are essentially an adult choice, we cannot afford to destroy the future generation for misplaced notions of religion and tradition.

(Disclaimer: This was first published in Lokmat Times. The views expressed are the author’s own)

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