Food occupies the thoughts of human beings; conscious and subconscious, for the major part of their existence from birth to demise. As with all processes that are essential to the survival of the species, the acquisition and the eating of food is far more than a mere physical activity. Nature ordains that to establish these processes in due importance, they be endowed with the trappings of culture and ritual and thus become an intrinsic part of the very social fabric of an individual, family and community. No surprise, then, that food is an essential part of our festivals, celebrations, mourning and so on.
Even in daily life, we eat not just to fill our stomachs and nourish our bodies; cooking and eating together is a rite that binds people together and creates emotional and social wellbeing.
How tragic it is, that decades after independence the majority of our children are still surviving on the most meager of diets, eating meals that allow for such little quantity, diversity and quality.
Markets are quick to fill this vacuum with their shiny packets of junk food that comprises of only empty calories at best and harmful products at worst. They do this with a penetration to the most remote areas, and at cost that is suitably low to allow purchase, yet furnish profits by dint of the sheer volume of sales. The other space they have been attempting to capture, with recent success, is the nutraceuticals market.
If we examine the expenditures on food within our own families – perhaps the average would be 50-100 Rs per child per day, especially if we subscribe to the recommended ‘five helpings of fruit and vegetables’ and the expensive animal-based proteins that all growing children need.
How does this compare to the state allowance of 6 Rs per child per day in the ICDS and 9 Rs per child per day for the severely malnourished child?
While the State is reluctant to spend much on food for all children, which would save many from malnutrition, it is strangely inclined towards expenditures to the tune of 75 Rs per child per day for Ready-to-use-therapeutic food (RUTF) to be purchased from for-profit companies for children with severe acute malnutrition (as announced by the State of Maharashtra recently and being considered by many other state governments).
As advocates, we must ask ourselves if we will allow malnutrition to be treated merely as a matter for medical or technical intervention, rather than a massive social injustice. Taking a stand for social justice necessitates giving priority to processes that empower the affected and promote their self-reliance and agency.
Thus, while ensuring technical correctness, we are ethically equally charged with fighting for rights to decent food, decent health care, decent childcare services, decent education, women’s empowerment, promotion of nutrition-sensitive agriculture, fair employment and a tolerant democratic society. This is not a simple ‘ask’ in today’s times, but truly, the need of the hour.
Public Health Resource Network