Three years ago we campaigned in these villages for accountability in ICDS services. Villagers filed RTI Applications, met the Collector, held inquiries and saw services improve measurably, from the measuring cups used to the frequency and equality of service in centers where these were lacking previously.
Now we visited the anganwadi to see how things were going. I was shocked to find that in lieu of the bimonthly ration of wheat, rice, dal and oil that the ICDS distributed to pregnant women and mothers of children up to age 3, they were now distributing packaged powder! Packaged in a glossy plastic bag with a drawing of a mother and baby and a table of nutritional information, the powder, made of refined flour, sugar oil and nut powder, is a “Ready to Eat Theraputic Food” or RUTF. RUTF is recommended only in emergency relief situations where fresh food is difficult to procure or prepare, or other special circumstances. For regular nutrition, fresh local food is the priority – it is more nutritious, costs less, sustains local agriculture and is better in the long term for producer and consumer alike.
Instead they are distributing these:
I talked to local women and asked them what they thought about this. Some said that the powder did not suit their children. Others said that they thought it was nutritious and that they were supposed to give it. They said, “It is approved by the National Institute of Nutrition.” This is the same institute whose deputy director Veena Shatrugna stated that packaged food was not nutritious (“ICDS gets packaged food,” Down to Earth, March 15 2008).
We have in fact been hearing about the proposal to push packaged food into the ICDS for many years, and seen this idea criticized by Amartya Sen and other respected economists, Recently when it came into Jharkhand, the Ministry of women and child development, in a strongly-worded letter, has asked the Jharkhand department of social welfare to stop. (Times of India 17 Oct 2013).
Apart from violating the norms and indeed the purpose of the ICDS, the “Balamrutam” supplied to mothers of children under 3 threatens to reduce breastfeeding. Complimentary food starting after 6 months of age should be made of family food and not powdered food from a package.
The ingredients are: wheat, chana, sugar, refined palm olien oil, skim milk powder, calcium, iron, and B vitamins. Preservatives are not required to be listed on the package. Added vitamins and minerals are not well absorbed and the dried wheat and chana would not have the nutritional value that the child could have obtained from wheat (or better yet local millet) and chana prepared at home. Oil that is processed for including in dry powders can never have the value of oil in its own liquid form. Sugar is included to disguise the stale taste of the packaged food and take advantage of the taste for sweet food. For young children just learning about the diverse flavors and textures of foods, a homogenized sweetened powder will only orient them to the taste of packaged food.
The ICDS is in a position to provide grains, dal and oil to people’s homes and should not use its offices to provide packaged, sugared food instead.