Eat Right India forges a collaboration between the agriculture, health, industry, and environment ministries over the respective food-related mandates
By Pawan Agarwal
India has a high burden of food-borne disease, the double burden of malnutrition, and high levels of micronutrient deficiency, the latter equally prevalent amongst rich and poor. It is hence remarkable that an Indian programme, Eat Right Initiative, by FSSAI has been recognised among the top-ten for the Food System Vision Prize by the US-based Rockefeller Foundation. It is an acknowledgement of the potential that is India’s—a country that will be 1.64 billion strong by 2050!
“Better food for better lives” is one of the ten submissions to receive this global recognition, and it is indeed heartening that the Foundation feels, “Your vision inspires. If implemented, it can transform. It feels lofty yet feasible—audacious yet vital. It can reveal a path forward to a nourishing, resilient, sustainable and equitable food system for 2050, if not well before”.
We can then safely assume the Eat Right India initiative, promoting “healthier diets, through a systems-based approach of reducing food waste; improving hygiene and sanitation and increasing access to and affordability of healthy foods” can actually be a game-changer.
It all starts with a positive vision. While conceptualising the prize, the Foundation reviewed documentation of popular culture and saw that 98% views expressed were pessimistic. Clearly, it is easy to describe a world that we do not want than imagine the world that we do! Based on this, the prize was launched to encourage creative, holistic, and positive ideas for the future, because if you can’t imagine it, you can’t create it.
India’s food system has not been one of the best. While it has evolved, despite significant progress, we still consume about 10% lesser calories than we should, our diets are deficient in proteins and micronutrients like iron. And, unsafe eating habits lead to nearly 500,000 yearly deaths. But our future can be different.
Eat Right India, a pan-India movement, has driven initiatives and awareness on healthier diets. The vision was to provide safe and wholesome food, delivered through a judicious mix of regulatory changes, capacity building initiatives and availability of collaborative tools. This outreach and the “food systems approach (FSA)”, by FSSAI has also been commended by prime minister Narendra Modi in Mann Ki Baat in December 2018.
Eat Right India is based on three pillars—safe food, healthy diet and sustainable diet. It worked on the vision of ‘if it’s not safe, it’s not food’; ‘food should not only serve the palate, but is meant for body and mind’, and ‘food has to be good both for people and planet’. It is a collective effort to ensure universal access to safe food, healthy and sustainable diets.
Each of these pillars had five concrete actions. Safe Food focussed on personal & overall hygiene, hygienic & sanitary practices through the supply chain, combatting adulteration, reducing toxins & contaminants, and, finally, controlling food hazards in processing and manufacturing. A healthy diet was encouraged through promoting dietary diversity/balanced diet, eating less/timely, eliminating toxic industrial trans-fats, reducing consumption of salt, sugar & saturated fats and promoting large scale fortification of staples to address micronutrient deficiencies. The sustainable diet pillar promoted local/seasonal foods, prevented food loss/waste, conserved water in value chains, reduced use of chemicals in production/preservation and, encouraged the use of safer and suitable packaging.
These helped improve the safety and quality of food, and inspired public trust in food available commonly or through the government programmes. It also encourages a strong culture of self-compliance with a view to promote ease of doing business. It also seeks to have certification of clean street food hubs, fruit and vegetable markets, hygiene rating of halwai shops, meat shops and safety of food served in religious places.
The time is right to bring about a culture of Eat Right @ Home, Eat Right @ School and Eat Right @ Campus. To drive awareness around this, a repository of content has already been created, and mass campaigns have been launched with well-known personalities, including Virat Kohli, Raj Kumar Rao, Juhi Chawla, and Sakshi Tanwar.
Eat Right India is perfectly poised to win everywhere. It is people, gender, region and status agnostic. It forges a collaboration between the agriculture, health, industry, and environment ministries over respective food-related mandates, building a ‘whole government’ approach. It also builds on synergies of programmes like Ayushman Bharat, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Poshan Abhiyaan and Fit India to institutionalise preventive healthcare as a way of life. This approach underpins FSSAI’s role as an ‘enabler and reformer’, apart from being an ‘enforcer’—to build a positive, collaborative and inclusive environment, for unlocking the true potential of the food sector. The recognition by Rockefeller Foundation takes this programme to the global stage where other low- and middle-income countries can try similar transformation of food systems. This could also garner collective attention in 2021 Food System Summit by the United Nations.
Never has the health of a country been so critical. Never has the benefit of access to safe food, healthy and sustainable diet been so crucial. It is the perfect time to galvanise forces behind the Eat Right movement to ensure that each country reaches its full potential.
The author is CEO, FSSAI in the years 2016 to 2020, when ‘Eat right movement’ evolved. Views are personal