A case for inclusion of millets in mid-day meals - Hindustan Times
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A case for inclusion of millets in mid-day meals

ByChanchalapathi Dasa
Apr 06, 2024 01:49 PM IST

This article is authored by Chanchalapathi Dasa, vice-chairman, Akshaya Patra Foundation, Bengaluru.

Millets are among the oldest foods known to humans. They are highly nutritious and climate resilient. And yet, somehow, they slowly disappeared from our collective conscience and kitchens. According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, the per capita millet consumption in India dropped from 30.94 kg per annum in 1960 to 3.87 kg per annum in 2022. However, things are now changing as a result of the concerted efforts on the part of the government and agencies like the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and ICAR-Indian Institute of Millets Research. The inclusion of millets in mid-day meals can help contribute to their resurgence and ensure that children get access to the nutritional and health benefits of these superfoods.

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Millets (Pinterest)

The Government of India, in particular, has taken a keen interest in reviving these forgotten superfoods. India declared 2018 the National Year of Millets and rebranded them as nutri-cereals in a bid to bring them back into the mainstream. These efforts have borne fruit. The area under cultivation for millets increased from 12.29 million hectares in 2013-14 to 15.48 million hectares in 2021-22. Policy think-tank NITI Aayog released a report titled Promoting Millets in Diets – Best Practices across States/UTs of India highlighting the innovative practices adopted to bring millets back. Following a proposal by the Indian government, the United Nations declared 2023 the International Year of Millets to—among other things—contribute to food and nutritional security.

Amidst all this, there lies an opportunity with dual benefits – the introduction of millets in mid-day meals. More than 118 million school children across the country receive mid-day meals every day as a part of the PM POSHAN Abhiyaan, the government’s flagship school feeding programme to support children’s nutrition and education. As one of the primary objectives of the programme is to improve the nutritional status of children, the introduction of millets in mid-day meals can go a long way in adding to the efficiency of this initiative whilst also boosting millet production.

The nutritional benefits of millets and the crucial role they play in dietary diversification make a strong case for their inclusion in mid-day meals. They are rich in protein, dietary fibre, antioxidants and micronutrients, like calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron and phosphorus. In fact, the consumption of millets with legumes, which are also known to be rich in protein, has its own benefits. A study by ICRISAT suggests that a combination of certain varieties of millet and legumes creates a highly digestible, complete protein rich in micronutrients. The dietary fibre in millets makes them important for gut health, while their antioxidant properties play a vital role in boosting the body’s immune system. As they are rich in calcium, they are crucial for the maintenance of bone health. Finger millet (ragi), for instance, has three times the calcium found in milk. Additionally, they are gluten-free and low in glycemic index (GI).

The inclusion of millets in mid-day meals can directly benefit over 118 million children across the country, safeguarding them from malnutrition. Furthermore, if lack of access is the reason for less consumption of millets, their integration in mid-day meals and other nutrition welfare programmes will help solve the issue by increasing their availability and enhancing the nutritional intake of children.

Successful integration of millets in the school feeding programme will largely depend on children’s acceptability. Therefore, there is a need to strategise and implement innovative approaches to introduce them in or alongside mid-day meals. One approach is to prepare millet-based versions of conventional food items, such as upma or bisibele bath, and gradually introduce them to children, starting with once or twice a week. Another is to serve millet-based snacks, such as ragi laddoos and chikki, as an additional item. In addition, awareness campaigns in the form of posters and audio-visual presentations in school will also help increase consumption among children. In the long-run, regular consumption of millets will improve their nutritional status and health, and consequently, their academic and co-curricular performance.

In the past, The Akshaya Patra Foundation has collaborated with state governments to undertake millet integration in mid-day meals on a pilot basis in Karnataka and Telangana with institutes like ICRISAT, the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR) and the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) as knowledge partners. The aim was to enhance the nutritional intake of beneficiary children by providing children millet-based items such as upma, bisibele bath, sweet pongal and khara pongal (Karnataka) and millet-based snacks like khaja, chikki and laddoos as a third item along with the regular mid-day meals (Telangana).

To this end, it is the Foundation’s strong belief that the integration of millets in the school feeding programme comes with dual benefits: First, it helps in mainstreaming millets as a healthy and sustainable choice, and second, it helps bridge the childhood nutrition gap effectively by leveraging an existing system.

This article is authored by Chanchalapathi Dasa, vice-chairman, Akshaya Patra Foundation, Bengaluru.

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