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Real issue about food in anganwadis

March 20, 2008 12:09 IST
The controversy over whether the government should mandate cooked food or pre-packaged meals at child care centres (anganwadis) and for the mid-day meal scheme in primary schools under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) misses the wood for the trees.

The fact that the debate is taking place actually reflects a greater failure of operational efficiency, to which Renuka Chowdhury, the minister for women and child development, would do well to turn her attention.

To be sure, both sides of the argument have merit. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's letter to the Prime Minister to dissuade Ms Chowdhury's ministry from serving biscuits and other packaged foods in government schemes suggests that any change, especially under pressure from commercial interests, could jeopardise children's health.

The point is well taken and, indeed, within some sections of government and the NGO circuit reservations have been voiced about the scheme falling prey to the large and powerful packaged foods companies in the private sector. As the mushrooming of "corporate" hospitals has demonstrated, private delivery of public services is not always an efficient and optimum solution.

Also, it cannot be anybody's claim that packaged food is necessarily more hygienic or more nutritious than a freshly cooked meal. There is sufficient evidence of contaminated packaged water and worms in confectionary -- both produced by multinational companies -- to contradict Ms Chowdhury's assertion that pre-cooked food is a healthier option for needy children.

At the same time, it is true that the practice of serving cooked food clearly needs improvement. There are regular reports of children falling ill after partaking of mid-day meals under such schemes. As for hygiene, this too can scarcely be vouched for, given the conditions in which the meals are cooked. As importantly, storage methods for the grains and pulses that go into these meals are often sub-standard, closely aligned to Food Corporation of India godowns where rodents and other related wild-life run at large.

Further, as a recent experience with the mid-day meal scheme in Karnataka shows, contracting out the cooking can be fraught with organisational problems. In Karnataka's case, it is the threat of unionisation -- the bane of government employment -- that has put the scheme in jeopardy.

On March 15, cooks from the state's mid-day meal scheme, under the aegis of a union affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress, went on strike demanding better wages and regularisation of their services.

It would seem, therefore, that the solution for the government does not lie in an extreme "either-or" choice. For poorer children, mid-day meals are an important supplement and, handled well, can play a critical role in improving child health.

In West Bengal, for instance, government schools have long provided a prescribed mix of packaged and cooked food that optimises nutrition -- the standard pack has been a boiled egg, banana, two slices of bread and butter and a sweet, for hundreds of children in state schools. Like all good ideas --  and the ICDS is certainly one of the better conceived -- the proof of success lies in the implementation.

In this case, it lies in more efficient monitoring mechanisms that optimise efficient delivery and cost without compromising on the social objectives. Whether this means serving packaged food or cooked meals is not the issue.

Business Standard