An inter-ministerial panel has recommended significant changes to the National Food Security Act (NFSA) which the government would do well to implement. Pointing out that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have “aggravated the silent crisis” of malnutrition, the committee has made a strong case for giving more teeth to the Act. It has sought a legal mandate for the inclusion of protein-rich foods such as eggs, nuts and legumes in nutritional schemes at the school and anganwadi levels. Guidelines of programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme do have protein-related norms but, by all accounts, most state governments have failed to do adequate justice to them. Eggs, for instance, are served in mid-day meals in only 13 states and three Union Territories. State governments often cited food-related sensitivities to oppose their inclusion in nutritional programmes. The panel takes such reservations on board by proposing that “those who do not consume eggs may be provided double the proposed quantity of nuts and seeds”.
The committee’s report acquires urgency in view of the concerns documented by the National Family Health Survey-5. The percentage of anaemic children up to the age of five, for instance, has gone from 59 per cent in the last survey to 65 per cent. At the same time, obesity has gone up in children of all age groups. This clearly suggests unhealthy eating habits and the absence of micronutrients in diets. The inter-ministerial committee has suggested a corrective. Instead of the purely calorie-centric approach of the NFSA, it recommends the incorporation of micronutrients — iron, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamin A and vitamin B2 — in diets. This, as a 2021 study conducted by the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition and the University of Baltimore shows, could be as simple as mixing a powder of these dietary essentials into a small portion of the cooked noon meal and serving it as the first few bites. Care should be taken to make sure that the meal comprises healthy ingredients in the first place. Moreover, anganwadis and schools need to have adequate stocks of capsules of vitamins and minerals. But a number of reports and surveys have revealed that this is not always the case. A legal mandate for micronutrients could be the first step toward pushing the Centre and state governments to address this deficit.
Despite being in place for more than nine years, the NFSA has, at best, led to marginal improvements in the nutritional status of people in large parts of the country. The tweaks proposed by the inter-ministerial panel could be just what the doctor ordered.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on July 6, 2022, under the title, ‘Nutrition dos’.