British food writer Ella Woodward famously said: "There's no such thing as 'bad' food or 'good' food." But teachers of Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Alappuzha don't seem to agree. It seems like 'good food' means boiled rice for them, and everything else is, well, not so great.
Students say the school, one of the prominent private higher secondary schools in the district, has made boiled rice mandatory for lunch for all students and has instructed them not to bring other food items for lunch more than twice a month - including rice-based dishes like idli and dosa.
"Sick parents" are excused to pack something else for his/her ward for a day or two, but they must inform the concerned class teacher beforehand.
The school has also formed "inspection teams" consisting of two or three teachers, who visit classes during the lunch breaks almost every day, to check if students are following the order.
"They visit our class almost everyday to see what we are eating. If somebody is seen eating something else, they are asked why they have not brought rice and our parents are contacted over the phone. If the student repeats it, he/she is scolded by the teachers," a class VI student said.
However, school principal Dr S Lali refuted the claim. "(Only) Non-vegetarian food items are strictly prohibited in the school. The teachers randomly visit classes to check if anybody is bringing meat to class. Biscuits, oily snacks, and aerated drinks are also not promoted in school. (Otherwise) Teachers are only asked to check if students are eating properly or not," she said.
She also said there are no other food restrictions in place in the school. "Earlier, students of junior classes used to waste food and when asked they used to say they were packed things that they don't like. Some parents, looking for an easy way out, pack them items from the previous night after heating them. This monotony triggers a dislike towards food among them, she said."
"No practice is in place that a parent should alert the class teacher for giving them something other than rice. But they bring chappati, idli, puttu or dosa all five days and rice is completely avoided," she went on to underline.
Not all parents agree. Stating that she usually contacts her daughter's class teacher when she has not packed rice, the mother of a class VII student said: "No parent will purposefully give poor food to their ward and I don't think it is unfair to consider their tiffin preferences. Also, is it not a crime to be scolded before the whole class?"
'Rice is not special'
So, does the consumption of boiled rice make big a difference to the health of the child? Is it more nutritional than other popular food items?
No, says Dr Mumtaz Khalid Ismail, Kochi-based consultant clinical nutritionist.
"Rice is not mandatory. Calorie wise, there is only a negligible amount of difference between rice and wheat. Hence, there is no harm in giving them chappatis or curd rice for lunch. Packed lunch of a schoolgoer should meet one-third of his/her total daily calorie and protein requirements. They shouldn't skip breakfast or lunch but that doesn't mean rice should be force-fed. A balanced diet should be the only priority," she notes.
But, Dr Mumtaz agreed that it is better to avoid monotony and bring variety into the child's food habits.
Parents, though, ask how is this possible if the school authorities keep insisting on a particular food regime.
School principal Dr Lali said, "If children prefer idli or dosa, let them have it. But it can't be permitted with just chutney or sambar; healthy side dishes like 'aviyal' or raw vegetables is a must."
Parents' choice matters
But can a school possibly dictate what the students can eat and cannot?
"The school has no right to do so. Children of school-going age are minors and thus their guardians can decide what to cook for their children. Such a decision will be valid only if it is unanimously passed by the Parents Teachers Association," said advocate G Harikumar of District Court, Alappuzha.
Another parent stressed that no such meeting has happened yet at Chinmaya school. "Usually, PTA meets happen class-wise. Can't talk for others but they haven't asked my opinion in this matter yet. Though I can understand the intention behind such a decision, I don't think all parents and kids will be okay with it. Rice is Kerala's staple food, but there are many who prefer other cereals over rice," the parent, whose child studies in Class X, said.
Pupils who spent their formative years abroad are allowed to bring other food for lunch, the principal confirmed.
That is another sore point. "Are they not concerned about the nutrition needs of those students? If rules are implemented, everybody should be treated equally. Aren't such exemptions and preferences unfair?" another parent asks.