A new pilot project is enhancing children’s nutrition and food security in India by bringing Smart Foods to schools through the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF)—the world’s largest meal provider to the underprivileged, serving 1.7 million free mid-day meals to schoolchildren throughout India each day. While many organizations are introducing healthier school meals, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and APF are employing a detailed scientific approach with their millet-based mid-day meal program. The partners are designing recipes that are easy to cook and that children will enjoy, while maximizing nutrient absorption, measuring health benefits, and more.
Smart Foods like millets, sorghum, and legumes are being used to target specific nutrient needs of malnourished children. While ICRISAT is leading this analysis, the pilot is also being made possible with support from the State Government of Karnataka and advice from the National Institute of Nutrition. This partnership program comes at a time when food insecurity, malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, and iron deficiency anemia are high in India, impeding good health and livelihoods. According to a recent study in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 50 percent of adolescent girls in India were anemic. To combat this problem, ICRISAT promotes traditional, micronutrient-dense grains, like millet, which can introduce significantly more iron, zinc, calcium, fiber, and protein into Indian diets.
The new mid-day meal program will start by serving Smart Food-based meals each school day to 800 schoolchildren in two schools in peri-urban areas, targeting children 11-14 years old—ages of significant cognitive and physical development with high iron requirements, especially for girls.
In a nearby village of Kagalipura, Bhagya Lakshmi complains that her daughter, Shivani, has skipped mid-day meals at school in the past. She hopes that this program will change that.
“Shivani prefers chapati (wheat bread) or dosa (rice pancake), so I pack her lunch every day; I don’t want my child to remain hungry. My sister has been recommending navane (foxtail millet), but I simply don’t know what to do with it. I really hope Shivani likes the taste of millets, and I will stop packing her lunch box!”
Bhagya Lakshmi and her 11-year-old daughter, Shivani. Photo courtesy of Liam Wright, ICRISAT.
ICRISAT’s Smart Food nutritionist and senior scientist, Dr. S. Anitha, told Food Tank that the meals provided to students must meet specific nutrition criteria and provide balanced and easily absorbed sources of micronutrients, including calcium, iron, and zinc. Before serving meals in the lunchroom, the team had them tested in a lab to confirm their nutritional value. As part of the program, ICRISAT will also teach school staff to use cooking methods that will preserve meal nutrients.
To promote the program’s long-term viability, Dr. Anitha says that each meal will be cost-effective and sustainable on a low budget, while also palatable for schoolchildren. Currently, the program aims to serve millet-based sweet and khara pongal (traditionally, a south Indian breakfast dish with rice & lentils), as well as upma (a customizable porridge) and bisi bele bath meals (traditional hot lentil and rice dishes in Karnataka). The mid-day meal program will also evaluate the availability, seasonality, and local varieties of Smart Foods and other meal ingredients in the regions around the schools to effectively utilize local resources. Dr. Anitha explains that ICRISAT will also assess options for “storage, purchasing in different locations, pre-prepared mixes,” and other techniques to maintain efficient meal service.
The final measure for this program is scalability, says Dr. S. Anitha; ICRISAT and APF will review “the ability to take the mid-day meal program across all of India, to other organizations, to other beneficiary groups, and other countries.” The partners will monitor the equipment and time needed for future schools to prepare the meals. ICRISAT is confident that this program can serve as a roadmap for other schools, providing a successful, sustainable, and scalable model to improve child health and school meals with Smart Food nutrition.