Why Is Removing Meat and Eggs From School Midday Meals Casteist? We Ask an Expert.
“Instead of being concerned about our children, that the pandemic is pushing them into malnutrition, they’re turning malnutrition into a policy.”
A position paper drafted by a committee of experts under the National Education Policy recommended removing meat and eggs from the midday meal scheme in schools, which is one of the mainstays of children’s nutrition in the country. The committee made some dubious claims pertaining to lifestyle, genetics, and discrimination in justifying the policy — revealing the inherent casteist roots of food politics in India.
The Swaddle’s Rohitha Naraharisetty spoke to Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, a public health doctor who advocates against the exclusion of certain foods and debunks casteist myths about them.
The Swaddle: The government, in its position paper, justified this policy saying that for the “small body frame of Indians, any extra energy provided through cholesterol by regular consumption of eggs and meat will lead to lifestyle disorders.” How do we debunk this notion?
Dr. Sylvia Karpagam: So first of all, the body size of Indians is not a standard. If Indians are given adequate, good quality, diverse, nutrient-dense foods that constitute a well-balanced diet, they wouldn’t have small frames. If you compare populations in India that have had good food over generations, they have consistently shown an increase in height. If some Indians have a smaller frame, it’s not something that we should just dismiss as a given — we should actually ask why so many Indians have a small frame when it’s possible to have better heights and weights. The small frame is because of stunting in childhood and because the mother never received adequate nutrition during pregnancy and her adolescent years. So the role of the government — through the educational system — is to make sure that people have both accurate knowledge about nutrition, and also access to all nutritious foods.
Stunting is specifically due to protein deficiency, but this is not a standalone deficiency in India. Most children in India have multi-nutrient malnutrition, because of which they have stunting and a lot of other problems — they are more likely to fall sick and have respiratory infections or diarrheal diseases more often. People blame this on poor sanitation — but even children in the same circumstances, if they were well nourished, are better able to handle infections.
These are the children who grow up with abnormal processing of sugar — insulin is not secreted adequately, and they are more likely to have non-communicable diseases later on in life. So it’s not exactly a lifestyle disease — policymakers are just placing the burden on individuals. We’re not holding the nutritional policies accountable. On the one hand, the government is opening up the markets, giving corporate contracts, and bringing in highly processed products. At the same time, they also bring in laws to criminalize what people are traditionally eating. It’s not a problem of lifestyle, it’s a problem of policy.
So the “small frame” idea hides a whole system of neglect that the child has gone through. And I think the governments, doctors, and researchers who are making policy should be held accountable for it.
TS: Why are meat and eggs in particular important for preventing childhood malnutrition?
SK: It’s about the diversity of foods: foods have to come from different food groups. These are your cereals and millets, pulses and legumes, fruits and vegetables, milk and dairy — sometimes eggs are a separate group — fish and meat, and oils and fats. So it’s important that a child gets all of these and there are certain recommended amounts for each.
But policymakers use calories to talk about people’s dietary needs. However, the main source of those calories should first come from non-cereal and non-millet foods. Cereals and millets can only meet the additional requirements. But what’s happening is that because cereals and millets are the cheapest, they consider that as your main diet. The problem with this is that you might get your carbohydrates for your energy, which allows you to do your day-to-day activities, but it does not give you enough proteins and other vitamins and minerals. Proteins are very, very critical for us — they help to build the body, help the children grow, help immunity, and are a part of antibodies, enzymes, and hemoglobin. In their absence, children become anemic because it’s not only iron that is part of hemoglobin, it’s protein and other vitamins and minerals.
The best sources of these proteins, vitamins, and minerals are animal sources. Plants have iron, but that is non-haem iron. And animal source foods have haem iron. The quality of haem iron is far superior to that of non-haem iron, and most of it is absorbed by the body. It is much more digestible — and is what we call bioavailability. That’s why these foods are nutrient-dense foods — even if you give 100g of red meat or organ meat to a child or an adult, they get a lot of the nutrients that they require not just to provide energy, but also to fight infections, stay healthy, for good skin, hair, teeth, and bones.
Protein from eggs and breast milk is actually considered a reference protein. When people say “eat soya, soya also has protein,” the quality of protein in soya is far inferior to the quality of protein in eggs. The whole myth that eggs just have cholesterol has been busted long back. And these people on this committee, seem to have made no effort to research any kind of literature. Nutritionists, the Right to Food Campaign, the National Institute of Nutrition — none of them have been consulted.
TS: The committee also recommended “sathvik foods” that it calls “natural” — these include jaggery, groundnuts, and sesame. What’s wrong with this idea?
SK: If you look at whatever is happening in the country, there is a push towards bringing in a Brahmanical system into all our lives and calling it part of our culture and tradition. India doesn’t have like one homogeneous, sathvik culture. There is no scientific basis for it. So we have Akshaya Patra, who has been pushing this sathvik diet — it is basically a nutrient-poor, cereal-heavy diet. For children, in terms of quality, it’s deficient. It doesn’t have the necessary fats, oils, proteins, vitamins, or minerals that any person needs. And secondly, it approaches food from a very non-scientific basis. So, for example, the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), in Mysore has put out a study, which shows that onion and garlic actually improve the bio-absorption of zinc and iron, both of which are deficient in our population. These aren’t included in sathvik diets — they say that these stimulate base emotions and desires.
The majority of children in government schools, however, are children from marginalized Dalit, OBC, and Adivasi communities. What they’re saying to them is, essentially, that “because of your food, you have a tendency to be a criminal.” The notion that the food that these communities eat is making them criminal, diverting their focus from schools and exams, and therefore, they’re not intelligent, calm, and serene — like the sathvik food-eating people — is a very casteist approach to nutrition. It’s a form of indoctrination and food imposition.
TS: The committee draws on what it calls the “gene-diet” interaction — is there such a thing?
SK: They should explain why there’s so much variation in terms of build between the elite Indians and others. Even the vegetarians who have access to nuts, fruits, sprouts, and dates, get a whole lot of variety in terms of the food that they get. Ghee, paneer, butter, yogurt — these are all animal sources — but the policies say that one source of animal protein is good and another isn’t. Notice how they’ve not talked about milk and dairy, which is very smart.
The question of genes cannot come in because we have so much malnutrition, we need to first address this over several generations before we actually consider genes. It’s like someone is drowning in water and then you’re saying no, he’s dying because he has diabetes. First, give people food. We have such a high hunger index in the country and so many nutritional deficiencies. We have anemia, vitamins A, B12, D, and zinc deficiencies. The Covid19 pandemic has made all of it worse. But instead of being concerned about our children — and how the pandemic is pushing them into malnutrition — they’re turning malnutrition into a policy. So the gene-diet thing is absolute nonsense because Indians with good nutrition do have comparable heights to people in the West.
TS: How does policy go against the principle of the midday meal scheme as it was formulated by K. Kamaraj in 1956?
SK: When it came to Tamil Nadu, it was just responding to hunger. I don’t think they were looking at nutrition as such, but I think the fact that they were giving eggs by default met some of the nutritional needs. But if you look at the National Food Security Act, they actually factored in the protein of about 12 to 20 grams for the primary school and older children. One egg can give you about eight grams of very good quality protein. And you still have to make up another 12 grams of protein for the children. For that, you need to increase the quality of the food. On paper it is there, but not in practice.
The addition of milk and meat would enhance the quality of the midday meal. But that’s actually not happening anyway. What we’ve seen is when the food is prepared in the school, there is a tendency for children to eat more quantity because the food is good, it’s prepared fresh, and it’s made by people who are local. So it’s the kind of food that they’re comfortable with. But with these centralized kitchens that are coming in, the food is cold, bland, and homogeneous; in many places, it is spoiled because it’s transported over long distances. So, the midday meal, over time, has become more than just tokenism — it seems like there’s an active process of sabotaging it and handing over money to corporates like Akshay Patra. The nutrition part of it has totally fallen by the wayside.
TS: The exclusion of meat and eggs is Brahminical and imposes this notion of purity into food and nutrition. How does this harm children — not just physically, but also in terms of the relationship that they have with food itself?
SK: I think that’s the worst part of this. I wouldn’t even call it brainwashing — what they’re doing is actually inculcating shame in the child. So this document says that giving different kinds of foods to the children leads to “discrimination” — and their solution is to give them the same type of food. So there is this idea that diversity, variety, or people with differences are bad, and that homogenous is good. But children need to learn to respect differences. And the idea that the vegetarian child is someone whose sensibilities have to be constantly protected by everybody else — that is the enforcement of the caste system. It says, “I don’t like your food therefore, I will not eat it — but I will also make sure through any means that you don’t eat it either.” It’s not even a choice. This is repeated by the teachers, principals, and doctors. So people are constantly being made to feel that it’s not only their food but that they are also disgusting, polluted, dirty, and smelly. Those are caste behaviors and we need to see them for what they are.
They say “eat what your grandmother cooks.” My grandmother cooks beef, my grandmother cooks dry fish. So why is it that my culture suddenly is not cultured? We all need to start asking that. Why has your grandmother’s food — and not mine — become a national recommendation now?
TS: Why do you think this policy is even being pushed, in the first place? And what would the long-term implications of its successful implementation be?
SK: It’s about a caste hegemony, and not about Indian — or even — Hindu culture. I think there is also an aspect of economic gain to it. Socially, too, there is a tendency to bring back hierarchical systems: you want cheap labor from informally-educated people. Dalit communities doing well challenge the status quo — people worry they might not get domestic workers and manual scavengers. So, the current hierarchical structure brings them comfort.
And then, there’s also a lot of anger toward people from marginalized communities asserting their constitutional rights based on what the Constitution gives. So I think it is also to make the Constitution less relevant in terms of how India is governed. We as doctors or nutritionists only have to bust some of these myths scientifically, then I think people can take it up and say: “This is a food we’ve always been eating. Research says is important for us. It’s good for us. We want those to be part of the policy.” Unless that happens, this indoctrination is going to keep happening.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.