India’s massively successful school lunch program has become embroiled in a complicated social and religious controversy over the simple egg.
The country isn’t just home to a quarter of the world’s malnourished population, but also to the world’s biggest school lunch program. However, efforts to include eggs on the lunch menu have sparked an unexpected controversy, highlighting the difficulties of navigating between best nutritional practices and respect for cultural and religious beliefs.
The Midday Meal Scheme, launched nationwide in 1995, was introduced to reduce malnutrition, bolster school attendance and increase learning results by diminishing classroom hunger. More than 20 years later, the government-funded initiative provides 120 million of India’s estimated 450 million children with one cooked meal per day. It has been widely credited with increasing school attendance and improving learning.
Since the Midday Meal Scheme’s inception, India’s overall literacy rates have risen from 50 percent in 1991 to almost 75 percent in 2011. Primary school enrollment has surpassed 92 percent in 2013.
While various studies have linked increased school attendance in India to the free lunches, the improved enrollment and literacy rates have not been matched by a comparable, consistent decline in malnourished children.
While stunting rates for children under 5 fell from 48 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2015, according to a recent study, the percentage of wasted children actually increased in that time period from 19.8 percent to 21 percent. Still today, India remains home to 50 percent of the world’s undernourished children.
Experts say officials needs to reconsider what is going in the lunch, with a specific focus on integrating foods that might help reverse persistent malnutrition.
Sachin Jain, a right to food activist from Madhya Pradesh – a state in the center of India and one of the country’s poorest – had a simple solution: eggs. “Eggs are a powerful tool in combating malnutrition. If all children were offered eggs as part of their Midday Meal, the level of malnourishment among children would be much lower,” Jain said.
There is a problem, though. Hinduism, the largest religion in India, calls for its followers to stick to a diet that does not include eggs. That has set up a battle between advocates who want to at least offer eggs as a choice and some Hindu organizations that are responsible for the increasingly centralized process of preparing the lunches and absolutely refuse to include them.
The Egg Debate
The Indian government currently spends less than 10 cents per meal, which means what appears on at lunch is often dictated by what is most affordable. As such, menus for Midday Meals usually rely on cheap Indian staples like rice, lentils and vegetable curry.
To combat malnutrition, health experts are pushing for officials to include more protein in the meals. This is particularly pressing for children from underprivileged families, who rely on the scheme as their primary meal for the day. Jean Dreze, an Indian economist and social activist, said eggs are the cheapest form of protein available. They are also packed with vital nutrients.
But Hinduism considers eggs to be nonvegetarian and, therefore, large swaths of Indians follow – and advocate – a strict vegetarian diet. Currently only 13 states and territories of India include eggs in their Midday Meal menus. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the states that exclude eggs have threatened to drop out of the Midday Meal scheme if they are included.
“From [our] perspective, egg is nonvegetarian and we are pure vegetarians,” Sanjay Tikku told News Deeply. Tikku is the vice chairman of Annamrita Foundation, one of the largest NGOs involved in the Midday Meal program. “We neither eat nor serve nonvegetarian food.”
Annamrita’s opposition is especially significant because the foundation serves about 1.2 million Midday Meals every day in seven Indian states and territories.
Dreze pushed back on Annamrita’s stance, saying the decision whether to eat eggs should be left to children or their parents, not the meal provider.
“Nobody is saying that you should force eggs upon anyone,” Dreze told News Deeply. “But those who oppose eggs want to impose vegetarianism on others, including, for example, Dalit communities or Adivasi children who are not vegetarian at all.”
Adivasi is a term used to refer to indigenous people of mainland South Asia and Dalits refers to castes in India that have been subjected to untouchability.
Komal Ganotra, director of policy research and advocacy at Child Rights and You, an NGO working with children in the country, told News Deeply that the problem could be solved by decentralizing the process. By letting communities make the decision about what is included in the Midday Meal, it would allow for lunches that better reflect local cultural beliefs.
“In a country with such a huge diversity like India it’s problematic when one group becomes very powerful and starts influencing the rest,” Ganotra said. “Let every family decide its food, at least let them decide what they want to have. Why do we have to centralize everything?”
Instead, though, the system is moving toward more centralization. Contractors are beginning to prepare the food in specialized facilities and then deliver it to individual schools, Tikku said.
This paves the way for a professionalization of the preparation of meals and a more rigorous enforcement of food safety regulations. However, it also leads to standardized meal plans across various communities – and could ultimately give large providers, like Annamrita, more control over what is offered at lunch.
Tikku suggested that the problem is not centralization, but a lack of funding. With more money, Annamrita and other providers could turn to alternative – and vegetarian – sources of protein like soya, kidney beans or chickpeas.
National and state governments, which split the cost of providing the meals, have offered no indication that they plan to increase the budget for the Midday Meals, though. Experts like Jain said that leaves eggs as the only option if policymakers are truly interested in offering students a viable source of protein.
“They need to shift their logic from a right to food to a right to nutrition,” he said.