‘Smart food of 21st century’ for the children

Millets are good for farmers, for nature and for us. These nutrition-rich food grains should be made part of the mid-day meal scheme

Ajay Kavishwar | June 6, 2018


#Food   #Midday meal   #Schools   #Nutrition   #Health  


India’s mid-day meal (MDM) scheme is the largest school lunch programme in the world, with over 97 million beneficiaries. It aims at improving the nutritional status of children in government and government-aided schools by providing them freshly cooked nutritious meals every day. Since the inception of this initiative, however, wheat and rice have been its staple constituents. While these food grains no doubt come as a blessing for millions of children for whom the mid-day meal is the only proper meal for the day, there is some scope to do better. The time has come to pay heed to a lesser known source of significantly higher nutritional value: millets – the high fibre, protein-rich smart food.

India is currently home to about 50 percent of undernourished children of the world with micronutrient deficiencies being key contributors to malnourishment. These deficiencies affect the cognitive and physical growth of children. The National Health Policy 2017 emphasised on the need to address micronutrient malnourishment by promoting micronutrient supplementation and food fortification, and creating public awareness . In keeping with these recommendations, the addition of super foods – such as millets – in the diet, can help address a range of deficiencies, especially in children and women. The introduction of millets into the MDM scheme, for instance, can help address these deficiencies among millions of school-going children.

Smart food of 21st century

Millets are now being promoted as the ‘smart food of the 21st century’ as they are highly nutritious and have several health benefits to their credit. They are rich in proteins, minerals, dietary fibre, iron, zinc, magnesium, fats, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B, and essential amino acids. Finger millet (ragi) has three times the amount of calcium compared to milk.

For every 100g, finger millet contains 0.344mg of calcium. In contrast, for every 100g, rice contains 0.010mg of calcium. While 100g of barnyard millet contains 0.019mg of iron  and 4.700g minerals , the same quantity of rice contains 0.002mg of iron and 0.600g of minerals. While rice contains 6.800g of proteins for every 100g, proso millet contains 12.500g – almost double the amount of protein .

They are heart-healthy foods which also help in controlling cholesterol levels and their low Glycemic Index can prevent diabetes. Furthermore, they display superior antioxidant activity and are also gluten-free – the latter making them the best alternative to wheat for people with glucose intolerance. Their rich calcium and iron content, along with the several aforementioned benefits, makes them perfect health foods for children. Evidently, millets are a worthwhile source of wholesome nutrition, and therefore, it would be valuable to incorporate these smart foods in nutrition-based welfare schemes such as the MDM and the integrated child development services (ICDS) schemes. These foods can play a key role in helping achieve higher nutritional levels, thus tackling nutrition-related deficiencies in children.

While it is a good idea to incorporate millets in mid-day meals, the success of this initiative will largely depend on children’s acceptability of a millets-based menu. This can be challenging when they are not used to these foods in their regular diet. It is important, therefore, that the recipes based on millets are tailored taking this factor into consideration. One way to ensure that the transition is smooth is to provide them millet-based recipes such as chikki and laddoos, along with the regular mid-day meal initially and gradually add other recipes.

A boon for agriculture

Millets don’t just have numerous health benefits, but also have several advantages to offer to the agricultural sector if they are added to mid-day meals. After nearly four decades of farming irrigation-intensive crops, such as rice and wheat, India is looking for more sustainable ways of farming. Millets, the ‘smart crop of the 21st century’, have low carbon and water footprint. They consume 80 percent less water than crops like sugarcane, rice, and wheat, and require 70 percent less chemical fertilizers.

Moreover, they are highly climate-resilient. Being drought-tolerant, pest-resistant, high-yielding, low-risk crops, millets have a low input cost which makes them extremely favourable to farmers. In times when several parts of the country are battling drought, growing millets can come as blessing in disguise – especially for farmers with small holdings. For farmers, this means reduced cost of farming, and thus, a boost to their income and livelihood.

Even with a growing demand for millets from urban consumers, the area under millet cultivation declined to 14.72 million hectares in 2016-17, down 60 percent compared to the previous year. As a move to encourage farmers to bring more area under cultivation of millets, the centre and various states are incentivising millet cultivation for farmers. Karnataka, for instance, is offering a bonus of '400 per quintal in addition to the minimum support price of '1,700-1,725 per quintal of jowar and '1,900 for ragi .

The government is also actively working towards highlighting the importance of millets for both consumers and producers. These efforts on the part of the government to promote millets will receive a major boost with the large-scale inclusion of millets in the MDM scheme. The resultant higher demand for these crops would incentivise farmers to opt for them over paddy and wheat.

Millet integration in mid-day meals through collaboration between the centre and the state’s MDM scheme and their respective departments of agriculture would be mutually beneficial for both, children and farmers. Interestingly, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) promotes millets as ‘Smart Food – good for you, good for the planet, and good for the smallholder farmer.’ In collaboration with Akshaya Patra, the Karnataka government has also initiated a pilot project to serve millet-based food items twice a week to 1,622 beneficiaries from 10 schools in Bengaluru as a part of the MDM scheme.

Besides their inclusion in the MDM and the ICDS feeding, the government should also consider adding millets as subsidised food to the public distribution system (PDS). This will facilitate convergence of nutrition-based welfare programmes, thus ensuring that children get nutritious food at home right from early age and contribute towards their overall development.

The inclusion of millets in the MDM scheme will ameliorate the quality of meals provided to children and augment their nutritional levels. This makes a strong case for their inclusion in the school lunch programme, which is further strengthened by the fact that millet introduction will also bring in diversity to the meal and help in achieving the transition from food security to nutrition security for children. It will make a difference in lives of these children, thus paving way for them to become productive citizens of the country.

Kavishwar is director, PR & advocacy, The Akshaya Patra Foundation.

(The article appears in the June 15, 2018 issue)

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