Idea of replacing locally made food to compromise decentralised autonomy, community control

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Text of the letter by the Right to Food Campaign, endorsed by 188 individuals and organizations, to Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, Minister, Women and Child Development, Government of India:

We write to you to express our concerns regarding your plan to convert all take home rations given by Anganwadi centres to children in the age group of 6 months to 3 years and pregnant and lactating women, with “energy-dense, factory-made nutrient packets”, as has been reported by the media. Such a move would open doors for private contractors and suppliers, taking control over what is given in Anganwadi centres in a decentralised manner.

Children need adequate quantities of wholesome, diverse foods to grow and develop. These foods should meet their requirements of various nutrients, as well as calories. Lack of enough food, especially diverse food, means that children are unable to meet their nutritional requirements. The “supplementary nutrition programme” (SNP) under ICDS is expected to play an important role in combating child malnutrition. As shown by NFHS-4 data, less than 10% of children under two years in our country are currently receiving adequate diet, highlighting the urgent need to take measures to ensure dietary diversity and appropriate care and feeding for young children. Introducing nutrient packets would take us away from the objective of moving towards dietary diversity.

Adequate diet is defined as Breastfed children receiving 4 or more food groups and a minimum meal frequency, non-breastfed children fed with a minimum of 3 Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices (fed with other milk or milk products at least twice a day, a minimum meal frequency that is receiving solid or semi-solid food at least twice a day for breastfed infants 6-8 months and at least three times a day for breastfed children 9-23 months, and solid or semi-solid foods from at least four food groups not including the milk or milk products food group).

In the context of increasing burden of non-communicable diseases in India, experts have been warning us against excessive use of processed and ultra-processed foods. In a recent International Conference on the double burden of malnutrition held in Delhi, a number of country experiences were presented where successful strategies to combat malnutrition included supporting local food systems, improving livelihoods and access to healthy foods.

For years, the Right to Food Campaign has been fighting the battle against the role of private contractors in the supply of supplementary nutrition in the ICDS. In state after state it has been seen that the unholy nexus between the contractors and politicians/bureaucrats result in central contracts worth hundreds of crores for supply of food to ICDS. The quality of food supplied to the centres is compromised while companies make profits from the meagre allocation on supplementary nutrition. Recent scams related to the above have been brought to light in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

The ICDS’s supplementary nutrition programme (SNP) serves a range of important purposes.  It not only provides quantitative supplementation by increasing children’s food intake but also enhances the quality of diets by giving them nutritious and diverse food items they may not get at home, such as vegetables, eggs, fruit, etc. The provision of nutritious, cooked meals at the Anganwadi is a form of “nutrition education” – it helps to convey what a nutritious meal looks like, and to spread the notion that children need require a regular and balanced intake of various nutrients. It provides the opportunity to create employment for local women as well as demand for local product such as vegetables, eggs, etc. All of this is possible only when the food is produced and distributed in a decentralised manner.

We are opposed to these repeated attempts to serve commercial interests in the supply of nutrition in ICDS. The Supreme Court orders related to banning private contractors must be strictly adhered to. Adequate allocations must be made to ensure diverse and nutritious food, including eggs, are provided to children in Anganwadi centres (in the form of hot cooked meals or take home rations depending on local conditions) in a decentralised manner. Local groups must be provided the training and support required to deliver nutritious and hygienic food.

Intervention to replace locally made food compromises decentralised autonomy and community control. They also detract from local livelihoods and take away the option of using local foods and recipes many of which have good nutritional value. It also violates the Act which gives responsibility to the State Governments to “implement schemes covering entitlements under sections 4, 5 and section 6 in accordance with the guidelines, including cost sharing, between the Central Government and the State Governments.”

Large, global and national food corporations see children’s hunger and malnourishment as a source of profits and are trying to influence government policy towards providing packaged foods. We request you not to give in to the interest of profit and continue to abide by the letter and spirit of the National Food Security Act in providing locally made take home rations to children in the Anganwadi centres.

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