I got quite a bit of pushback to my article supporting Mrs Maneka Gandhi’s views on prepackaged and ready to eat nutrition for pregnant and lactating women and children under ICDS from “hot cooked meals” purists.
I found one interesting comment offering the Akshaya Patra model of centralised kitchens as a hot cooked meals solution for the problem.
While Akshaya Patra is surely doing a good job of delivering good quality meals wherever it runs the mid day meal scheme, I think the Akshaya Patra Model is a part of the problem and not the solution.
There are two primary problems with the current hot cooked meals paradigm :
a. Poor quality and leakages (these two problems are related somewhat)
b. Poor and incomplete nutrition
Is Akshaya Patra contributing to the first problem? No, but it is not a solution either unless it or it’s ilk can take up all the kitchens. The vast majority of the kitchens do not have the same quality standards; or the ability to top up the government dole with an addition ₹3-₹4 to make a certain minimum standard possible. The solution that Akshaya Patra talks about does not work in the budgets currently available and so can’t scale to replace all the low quality kitchens operating all over the ICDS.
Is Akshaya Patra contributing to the second problem of poor or incorrect nutrition in the meals? You bet it is. And here is why –
The Akshaya Patra model delivers a one size fits all solution that works for the lowest common denominator. By delivering a solution that works for the average, it does not solve the problem for the children and mothers who need a formulated nutrition solution. Those with low BMI. Those with clearly deficient protein status. Those with significant macronutrient deficiencies.
The reality is that a high protein, micronutrient rich solution is needed for an identifiable subset of the mothers and children. In addition, this needs to be in a high calorie base for the low BMI cases and a low calorie base for the fast increasing number of high BMI cases.
A prepackaged or premixed solution solves all these problems. It delivers high quality and low costs within budget. It makes it possible to target the savings and formulated variants for special needs mothers and children. It also allows flavourful variants to accommodate a wider range of likes and dislikes.
“Hot cooked meals” sounds warm, fuzzy, traditional etc. It serves the psychological needs of the policy makers and gives them a nice dopamine hit. They feel they are doing the “right thing.”
Get off the high people.
All that the warm cooked meals are doing is delivering poor quality food and even worse nutrition to the mothers and children who need it. Prepackaged food sounds very “unsexy” and “big companyish” but that’s the solution which will deliver the maternal and child health outcomes our country needs.