The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) said on Tuesday that it stands by its findings certifying mid-day meals without onion and garlic provided by the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) in Karnataka schools as compliant with nutritional norms laid down by the State government.
The response from the institute follows an open letter from experts asking it to withdraw its report on APF on the ground that it was not based on a “systematic scientific study”, which would include a physical inspection at schools. The signatories of the letter comprised 10 organisations as well as 94 experts, including faculty from prestigious institutes like IIM Bangalore, Tata Insitute of Social Sciences, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Right to Food Campaign-India, and People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
“We stand by our response to the Karnataka Government,” NIN’s Director, Dr Hemalatha R, wrote in response to a story in The Hindu on May 14, 2019.
In January, 2019, the Karnataka government had asked NIN to assess APF meals for nutritional compliance, food safety, taste and diversity of meals following objections by the Karnataka State Food Commission as well as activists that absence of onion and garlic from meals made the food unpalatable and resulted in children consuming less quantity of food. APF provides food under the government’s mid-day meals programme at 2,814 schools in the State. NIN’s response added that its report was based on computing macronutrients and micronutrients from menus suggested by the Karnataka government and those provided by APF.
“Using computational methods to compare different menus and assess nutritional quantity and quality and diversity is an accepted scientific tool,” the NIN Director wrote.
On the issue of onion and garlic missing from meals, the Director wrote, “looking at each vegetable or compound in isolation and implicating it to the overall nutritional quality of composite meal is not justifiable NIN has no hesitation in saying that most vegetables/fruits improve bio-availability of micronutrients and hence can be used interchangeably.”
Bengaluru-based independent researcher, Siddharth Joshi, who was among the signatories of the open letter, rejects NIN’s explanation. “How could NIN prepare a report without a field-level assessment of the ingredients used in preparation of food to ensure nutritional requirements were being met and not verify claims being made on a paper menu by APF.” The issue is not just about absorption of nutrients, but is also about the food not being as per local tastes. The most important question that authorities are glossing over is why not provide onion and garlic, which are available all round the year and are cheaper than other ingredients.”