Parents can monitor what their children eat at home, but once they step out, healthy options dry up. Instead, children’s palate is assaulted with unhealthy food high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) and low on essential nutrients they need to grow mentally and physically.
Chips, sweetened beverages, instant noodles, fries, samosas, bread pakoras and patties are the standard fare in most school cafeterias. When schools ban them, enterprising vendors set up makeshift kiosks and sell meals-on-bicycles outside schools. With no running water or quality control for cooking and storing, most children end up with empty calories and very often, gut-destroying germs.
“All refined, fried and processed foods are just empty calories because most of the essential sugar and fat the body needs is present naturally in food, such as sugar in fruits and fat in dairy, seeds, nuts, meats and cooking oil,” says Rahul Verma, founder of the Delhi-based non-profit Uday Foundation, which filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court in December 2010 asking for a ban on the sale of junk food in schools. “Though traditional snacks are freshly made and do not have additives such as colour and preservatives added to them, they are usually high in low quality oils, salts and sugars,” Verma underlines.
In March 2015, the Delhi High Court asked the administrator of Delhi to issue healthy eating guidelines under Rule 43 of the Delhi School Education Rules, 1973, and directed the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to formulate guidelines, which have since been circulated but are not binding.
While many private schools in Delhi and Mumbai have not waited for government guidelines and moved towards healthier snacks years ago, Punjab, where the state’s child rights commission banned junk food in schools in January 2016, unhealthy foods are still widely available.
Delhi’s Springdales School, Pusa Road, removed fried snacks and aerated drinks from their canteen menu a decade ago. The shift in the attitude occurred after a survey showed 70% of the students were overweight and were either suffering from associated conditions or would grow up to be unhealthy adults.
“Children have only one meal in school during recess. To make the child healthy over-all, we have to involve the parents. Too many children were getting two-minute noodles, fried potato taters or foods high on sugar and fats,” says Ameeta Wattal, principal, Springdales, where poha, idli sambar and wholewheat sandwiches are sold along with drinks like lassi, chaach and lime juice.
These foods are also part of the cafeteria menu at Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, where the menu is changed periodically to include seasonal vegetables. The school also has a committee – consisting of teachers, students and some parents who work in the field of nutrition -- that monitor the nutrition value of the food, the taste and the oil it is cooked in. “Our canteen is outsourced, but we strictly monitor it to make sure that the quality of the food is maintained,” says Manohar Lal, principal of the school.
In Lucknow’s La Martiniere Girls College, children are encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables from kindergarten. “The practice was introduced by our former principal Late Farida Abraham and it is still continuing,” vice-principal Aashrita Dass told HT.
In Mumbai, parents associations are sore at the lack of guidelines in Maharashtra. “Schools receive cutbacks from vendors, and canteen contractors also prefer such items because it boosts their sales,” says Jayant Jain, president, Forum for Fairness in Education, a parent-teacher body.
Even education officials admit they do not check whether schools serve junk food as there is no regulation against it so far. “We cannot stop a school from serving junk food, as there is no official ban in place. We can at best advise them to opt for healthier choices,” concedes BB Chavan, deputy director of education, Mumbai division.
While many schools said it is difficult to restrict junk food in its vicinity, some have come up with innovative ways to restrict fast food in the campus: Rajhans Vidyalaya in Andheri serves fresh, hot and hygienic food breakfast and lunch on campus and doesn’t allow home food to ensure parents don’t send unhealthy food. Aerated drinks are banned.
At Ryan International, Kandivali, teachers patrol the streets after school to ensure children walking out don’t stop at the nearby McDonalds or other junk food joints.
In government-run schools, the hot meals provided under the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (Mid Day Meal Scheme) are nutritive and safe but remain a challenge in many districts. The scheme was launched to increase enrolment, retention and attendance while improving the nutrition levels of children by giving them 300 calories of energy, 8-12 gm of protein and adequate micronutrients.
The meals were not good enough to keep children in school. A 2015 audit of the action taken on the Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2008 Report on Mid Day Meal Scheme showed that the enrolment of children in the midday meals-covered schools dropped from 14.69 crore in 2009-10 to 13.87 crore in 2013-14, while enrolment in private schools shot up by 38% in the same period.
The audit also found children were given less than the prescribed quantity of 100/150 gms of foodgrains and prescribed inspections were not carried out to ensure quality. Most schools sample checked in the audit were lacking in infrastructural facilities like kitchen sheds, proper utensils, availability of drinking water facility etc. There were several instances of food being cooked in the open in unhygienic conditions, the report found.
Few lessons seem to have been learnt from the shocking case of negligence that left 23 children dead and dozens others seriously ill after they ate a pesticide-laced midday-meal at a primary school in the village of Dharmashati Gandaman in the Saran district in Bihar in July 2013. A month later, 30 children fell ill in the Betul district of Madhya Pradesh; and in November 2014, 25 children fell ill after eating their mid-day meal at a government school in Gaya district in Bihar.
In July 2016,40 students fell ill in Chincholi village of Adilabad district of Telangana after eating food prepared in the school kitchen for a farewell party for seniors. In September that year, 25 students were hospitalised in Kolar district in Karnataka
In September 2015, about 150 students in Chandoor town and Ilapuram village in Telangana started vomiting after their mid-day meal.
“Such cases of food poisoning are very rare and take place in remote areas due to lack of proper supervision and maintenance of kitchen. Otherwise, there is a periodical check on the quality of food by officials, parents’ committees and teachers. Even we eat the same food regularly to ensure the quality,” said L Ravinder Rao, a senior headmaster in a government school in Ranga Reddy district of Telangana.