School-meals a key tool to tackle both hunger and obesity.
A Mint analysis of NSSO data on the nutrient intake of Indians, juxtaposed against a reference ‘ideal’ diet a new Lancet report prescribes, shows Indians aren’t eating right. Indians, both rural and urban, are eating a lot more carbohydrate than Lancet recommends as part of daily intake, and much lesser protein (from both plant and animal sources). Fruit and vegetable consumption is also much lower than the the recommended amount.
While Indians are consuming sweeteners (chiefly, sugar) in lesser amounts than recommended, bad nutrient sources account for over 200 kilocalories (kCal), against a total recommended calorie intake of 2,500 kCal. The nutrition ‘gap’ is worse for the rural than the urban population—against nearly every metric (junk food and eating out are two notable exceptions), rural Indians have more unhealthy diets than urban Indians. Though with increasing income, Indians seem to be diversifying their sources of nutrition further, protein intake—higher incomes are correlated to protein accounting for a larger part of the daily diet—remains a problem. In fact, the Mint analysis claims that there is a jump in junk food consumption with rising incomes.
Diet-related lifestyle diseases contribute a chunk of the non-communicable disease burden in India that now accounts for six out of ten deaths in the country from disease—16% of adult men and 22% of adult women in India are overweight and childhood obesity is becoming a serious threat. At the same time, 38% of Indian children suffer from stunting. Getting India to eat right needs the right policy call on different types of malnutrition. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and the mid-day meal (MDM) schemes have had some impact in curbing stunting amongst children. Given the Poshan Abhiyaan (National Nutrition Mission), that seeks to reduce the level of stunting to 25% by 2022, targets adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women, it ties up rather well with ICDS and MDM to target under-nutrition. However, on the obesity front, the government (both Centre and the states) are yet to come up with any consolidated policy to fight this. In this context, Japan’s experience with using mid-day meals at schools to fight obesity offers an important lesson.
Under a government programme, school cafeterias in Japan give students—elementary to senior secondary—wholesome meals that are free of processed and junk food. Parents who can afford to pay can choose to do so; otherwise, school children get balanced, nutritious meals without being charged for it. While even the food standards regulator has called for a sin tax on junk food, this seems a bad idea as the bulk of consumption of such food is by income-groups where such taxes may not have much impact given it is a matter of taste more than affordability for them.