The big egg question: Amid tight budget, Karnataka govt school kids to get egg only once a week

The humble egg had run into resistance when introduced as part of the midday meal scheme, and now, budget constraints have limited it to one a week  
The big egg question: Amid tight budget, Karnataka govt school kids to get egg only once a week

BENGALURU: While no major controversies have arisen in the school education sector this academic year, which cannot be said for last year, small pressures are still mounting.

Most recently, these pressures have come in the form of distribution of eggs under the Midday Meal Scheme (MMS) to students studying in government schools under the Department of School Education and Literacy. Recently, the department issued an order, limiting the distribution of eggs to once a week, rather than twice a week, due to budget constraints and the rising cost of procuring eggs in the state. While the order seems to have come out of nowhere, the issue had been mounting for a while now, dating back to as early as January 2022.

In December 2021, the Karnataka government took a decision to start distributing eggs under MMS in seven districts -- Yadgir, Raichur, Bidar, Ballari, Kalaburagi, Koppal and Vijayapura. The decision was made as the districts had come to the fore for staggering rates of malnutrition among students, with recommendations being made to include supplementary nutritional items to the children’s diet under MMS. The initial decision was to provide eggs from Class 1 to Class 8, on 46 days of the academic year. The potential to raise the number to 150 days in the year was also entertained, however, this has still not come to fruition.

The decision to distribute eggs in the seven districts was extended to the entire state in July 2022, despite opposition from various avenues. However, results from the pilot distribution to seven districts had seen good results. A study conducted in Yadgir district to study the effects had found a massive decrease in malnutrition. The government also brought in alternatives like chikki and bananas.

With the distribution of eggs turning controversial, with fierce opposition from many sides, the Karnataka government initially took the aid of the Tamil Nadu government in understanding how to effectively introduce eggs in midday meals.

However, as early as February 2022, there were reports of rising costs affecting the supply of eggs, as Anganwadi workers appealed for higher procurement allocation. While the initial allocation for procurement and cooking of the eggs was Rs 5, it was later increased to Rs 6 to account for the hike in egg prices. 

According to sources in the education department, the allocation of Rs 6 is to account for Rs 5 as procurement cost, and 50 paise going towards boiling and shelling costs respectively. Egg distribution was on shaky ground as meetings were held with religious leaders during 2022, where the introduction of sattvic food was discussed, however, this was never implemented due to heavy opposition from nutritionists.

In January 2023, however, egg distribution yet again became a problem, with schools trying to skimp on the distribution of eggs by distributing cheaper alternatives of chikki or bananas to students. This turned into an issue with the department, which later reiterated that eggs must be given to students who ask for them, and adjustments need to be made in the budget. 

At the time, Public Instruction Commissioner R Vishal had stated that schools would need to manage their budgets accordingly. “The price of eggs changes, and the number of students going to school on a particular day varies. If there are fewer students, it must be adjusted accordingly so that surplus is spent on days when there are more children,” he said.

This proved to be of no help, with the recent government order finally acknowledging the lack of funds for eggs, and temporarily lowering the number of eggs distributed per week to one from the usual two. Egg distribution is expected to return to normal on July 15, following the budget session, with the government yet again having high hopes of introducing eggs in meals for 100 days, doubling the current allocation.

The main reason for introduction of eggs in the Midday Meal Scheme was due to a rise in malnutrition in the state.  A survey was conducted by the Karnataka State Rural Development and Panchayat Raj University, Gadag, in the districts of Yadgir and Gadag, after the Midday Meal Scheme was implemented in Yadgir. 

The study found conclusive results, with Yadgir showing a marked improvement in the mental and physical development of a child, compared to Gadag, where the scheme wasn’t implemented. Following a report from the university, the government implemented the scheme all over the state.

MMS officials are confident that as of now, the scheme satisfies all requirements needed for the daily nutrition of students. MMS Senior Assistant Director Manjunath S C told TNIE that the nutritional value of food has been set out very strictly in the scheme’s guidelines, and they ensure that diverse food is served to children every day. 

“We have a different type of food every day, the rice is fortified with folic acid, iron, zinc and vitamins B-12 and A. We also use iodised salt and fortified oil. Apart from supplementary requirements of eggs, chikki and banana, regular food includes rice, sambar, bisibelebath, pulao, rasam and sabji, this changes depending on the day. For sambar and sabji, we make sure that different vegetables are used each day and all nutrition needs are met. On Saturdays, we use wheat products, like chapati, and also give payasam,” he said.

Nutrition experts stated that while this may be true, other factors also need to be taken into account. “It is not only the question of what the government or departments are supplying. It is the question of how they supply it and whether all procedures are being followed. For instance, the absorbing capacity of the nutrients may be low, and differ for every individual. All such things need to be taken care of. Sometimes, children fall short of nearly 75 per cent of their daily nutrients, despite being provided food,” one expert said.

They also stated that it depends on the condition of each child, their health, sanitation, hygiene of the food and other factors to show an impact on the growth of the children. Dr Sangeeta Hugar, nutritionist in Kalaburagi District Government Hospital, said the energy needs of healthy children are also determined by basal metabolism, rate of growth and energy expenditure. Dietary energy must be sufficient to ensure growth and spare protein from being used for energy, she said.

Speaking about the nutritional needs to be included in midday meals, Suvarna Hebbar, coordinator & assistant professor at the department of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, Manipal College of Health Professionals, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) and also in-charge dietician, Kasturba Medical College (KMC) Manipal, said adequate nutrition and excellent feeding practices are critical for a young child’s optimal growth.

“Protein is responsible for body building, maintaining of body functions and repairing body tissues. One can get protein from meat, fish, poultry milk and dairy products. Fats provide energy and also act as energy reserve. Vegetable oil, ghee, different types of seeds such as sesame and nuts are excellent sources of external fatty acids,” Dr Hugar said. 

She said children need iron because of rapidly expanding blood volume during growth and to prevent anaemia, and green leafy vegetables, nuts, fruits, poultry are some rich sources. “This does not imply that milk or any other supplementary food is a suitable substitute for egg, a class A protein. Children who do not eat eggs should eat a good quality protein mixture of cereals and pulses. A combination of leafy vegetables and Vitamin C should be considered as we see many children are anaemic at this age. Since food items under MMS are transported, the shelf life of the items is to be listed, and what is given to the kids should be selected carefully,” she said.

Interestingly, apart from regular reasons, the shelf life of ingredients has been raised as a concern against the introduction of meat in MMS. According to nutritionists, eggs, milk, sprouts and other regular hygienic food is sufficient for a growing child, with meat only an exception. Tanushree, a nutritionist from Hassan, told TNIE that the hygiene of meat cannot be maintained on school premises, and can be a high-risk factor in food poisoning, if introduced.

Dr Prashant Pawar, a medical officer under the Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (RBSK) also opined that meat is not a necessity for a growing child. Speaking from an administrative point of view, Hassan DDPI Prakash also said it would be difficult to maintain the hygiene of meat, if provided under the scheme. He also said it would disturb vegetarians when provided during a mass meal.

The overall consensus for the Midday Meal Scheme, as well as distribution of eggs, is that this has benefitted students, both physically and mentally. Several Deputy Directors of Public Instruction (DDPIs) told TNIE that a marked improvement in enrolment and attendance was seen, following the introduction of MMS.

Hassan DDPI Prakash K S stated that the dropout rate -- which was nearly 10 per cent -- has drastically decreased after midday meals were introduced. The midday meal scheme has also improved attendance in schools in Shivamogga district. There are 1.48 lakh students studying in Class 1 to Class 10, who are reaping the benefits of the scheme.

Davangere DDPI C R Parameshwarappa said the inclusion of eggs in the midday meal has also improved attendance in schools in the district. Yadgir DDPI H T Manjunath and Kalaburagi DDPI Sakreppa Gowda Biradar also agreed that due to midday meals, enrolment of students has increased and students attend classes regularly, and their overall health is also improving.

(With inputs from Donna Eva, Prakash Samaga, Marx Tejasvi, Mallikarjun Hiremath, Ramkrishna Badseshi, Raghu Koppar and Udaya Kumar)

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