New Delhi: Over a 100 activists and groups have written to Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi opposing the move to turn take home rations to women and children below three into “energy-dense, factory made” nutrient packets. The letter from the Right to Food Campaign, dated April 17, comes a day before the newly launched Poshan Mission’s National Nutrition Council is set to meet for the first time, on April 18.
Anganwadi centres give children aged six months to three years and pregnant and lactating mothers rations consisting of wheat, soya, sugar, etc. This is mandated under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) Supplementary Nutrition Programme, which also ensures children under three get hot, cooked meals in anganwadis.
Gandhi made the news recently by opposing her own ministry into wanting to convert these to factory made packets instead of sourcing local food items and ingredients. Citing food safety she has pushed for a powdered formula that can be mixed with regular meals.
Along with Right to Food, civil society groups such as Public Health Resource Network (PHRN), which recently organised an international conference on nutrition, have opposed this as it goes against the idea of dietary diversity that most public health activists see as crucial to nutrition. They also wrote that “such a move would open doors for private contractors and suppliers, taking control over what is given in anganwadi centres away from local communities.”
“As shown by NFHS-4 data, less than 10% of children under two years in our country are currently receiving an adequate diet, highlighting the urgent need to take measures to ensure dietary diversity and appropriate care and feeding for young children. Introducing nutrient packets would take us away from this objective of moving towards dietary diversity.”
Expressing their discomfort with private contractors holding people’s food in their hands, the campaigners added, “For years, the Right to Food campaign has been fighting the battle against the role of private contractors in the supply of supplementary nutrition in the ICDS. In state after state it has been seen that the unholy nexus between the contractors and politicians/bureaucrats result in central contracts worth hundreds of crores for supply of food to ICDS. The quality of food supplied to the centres is compromised while companies make profits from the meagre allocations for supplementary nutrition.”
The letter referred to “recent scams related have been brought to light in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.”
Dietary diversity means that people’s diet gets adequate amounts of all food groups, and is made of ingredients that are available and abundant locally. Such diets in anganwadis not only help childhood development but also allow locals to grow and control their own food. It provides, the letter said,”‘nutrition education”, an understanding of what a complete meal is and the vegetables, meat, eggs, etc., that people should demand. Gandhi’s plan to supply packets will destabilise this system.
Such a nutrient formula is given only to children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM). Handing out a pre-mix of nutrients instead of cooked food will treat all children and mothers as if they’re already ill.
“They also detract from local livelihoods and take away the option of using local foods and recipes many of which have good nutritional value. It also violates the Act which gives responsibility to the State Governments to “implement schemes covering entitlements under sections 4, 5 and section 6 in accordance with the guidelines, including cost sharing, between the Central Government and the State Governments,” added the letter.