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Hot meal for kids? Renuka sells ready-to-eat

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT in Delhi
  • Published 2.10.08
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New Delhi, Oct. 2: Minister Renuka Chowdhury wants to replace freshly cooked meals with packaged food at all anganwadi childcare centres, angering doctors, social activists and academics.

Chowdhury’s plans are being opposed by the Prime Minister’s Office, Planning Commission and the finance ministry, too, but the women and child development minister has challenged them to prove that cooked meals are better.

She has suggested a two-year pilot study as a pre-condition for universalising “hot, cooked meals” at India’s 6.5 lakh anganwadis — government-sponsored care centres that reach out to nearly 80 million children under six. Her challenge may be debated by the Union cabinet by next week, government officials said.

Doctors, activists and academics — who include Amartya Sen — argue that corrupt contractors can easily siphon pre-cooked, centrally packaged food away from the anganwadis and sell it in the market for profit.

In 2004, the Supreme Court had said that fresh meals cooked by “village communities, self-help groups and mahila mandals” should be the nutrition of choice at anganwadis. It had also said: “Contractors shall not be used for supply of nutrition to anganwadis.”

In March this year, however, Chowdhury announced plans to introduce ready-to-eat meals at anganwadis, which are a key component of India’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).

Her ministry said packaged food offered a more efficient way of providing children with key nutrients — such as vitamins, iron and folic acid — compared with a standard meal of rice, dal and vegetables. The ministry argues that unlike the mid-day meal scheme for schoolchildren, the ICDS is not aimed at “filling stomachs” but at providing supplementary nutrition to prevent malnutrition.

Ahead of a cabinet committee for economic affairs meeting next week, where the ministry’s suggestions may be discussed, opponents of the new scheme have written to the Prime Minister, other ministers and Sonia Gandhi, urging them to intervene.

One of the signatories to the letter, professor Jean Dreze, described as “insidious” the ministry’s suggestion of a pilot project before hot cooked meals were universalised at anganwadis. This proposal was made in a reworked ministry note for the expenditure finance committee.

“The ministry has suggested that ready-to-eat (RTE) micronutrient-fortified hygienically prepared food should ‘continue’ and that a pilot project for hot, cooked meals should be undertaken. This gives the (wrong) impression that RTE is the current policy, and that pilot projects are needed to introduce hot cooked meals,” Dreze told The Telegraph via email.