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The Akshaya Patra Foundation is the world’s largest (not-for-profit run) mid-day meal programme serving wholesome food to 1.66 million children from 13,839 schools across 12 states in India. It is a not-for-profit organisation headquartered in Bengaluru (formerly called Bangalore), India. The organisation strives to fight issues like hunger and malnutrition. By implementing the mid-day meal scheme in government and government-aided schools, Akshaya Patra aims not only to fight hunger but also to bring children to school. It is now starting to introduce millets or local grains instead of the usual wheat or rice in the meals it serves. Here’s why.

Students in an Indian school enjoying a mid-day meal. (Photo from the Akshaya Patra Foundation.)

The world’s largest not-for-profit daily free food programme for underprivileged children is pushing an unique experiment. It is starting a pilot covering 1,622 children across 10 government and government-aided schools in city of Bengaluru, known as the Silicon Valley of India, and later aim to extend to all the 486,172 beneficiaries served by Akshaya Patra in southern Indian state of Karnataka where it will serve millets instead of just rice and wheat.

This is critical because it brings back food habits that had been staple in India for thousands of years until the country’s Green Revolution pushed government subsidy and financing towards rice and wheat. This exponentially raised the quantity of wheat and rice grown India and helped solve the country’s food deficit in many ways but it also destroyed the natural food habits and cultivation patterns that had sustained the population for centuries. Millets are coarse grains and contain tons of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Popular millets in India include jowar (sorghum), sanwa(barnyard millet), bajra (pearl millet), ragi (finger millet), korra (foxtail millet), arke (kodo millet), sama (little millet) and chena/barr (proso millet).

For instance, government subsidies to encourage wheat and rice cultivation led to farmers even in water deficit areas switching from growing millets, which need little water and had traditionally been grown in those areas, to high water need crops like wheat and rice. The public distribution system of the government bought vast quantities of rice and wheat but little of any millets and this too encouraged farmers to main grow those crops.

This led to change in diet patterns too. A high consumption of polished rice is one of the main reasons India has the second-highest numbers of obese children in the world after China.

Even the new elite health conscious customer in India tends to choose expensive quinoa instead of the far cheaper (often at one-tenth the price) and home-grown millets with the same nutritional values.

‘Introducing millets in mid-day meals is a great beginning towards ascertaining this. Millets are not only rich in nutrients, but they are also good for our health, smallholder farmers and for the environment. This makes them smart food,’ said Krishna Byre Gowda of Akshay Patra.

Akshaya Patra has also launched millet snacks in the form of khajachikki, and laddus as a part of the mid-day meal project covering 105,724 children in government schools in the neighbouring southern state of Telangana.

The pilot is being run with the technical assistance of The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

‘Making millets popular to the masses again will be a major breakthrough in overcoming malnutrition and rural poverty while being more sustainable for the environment. It can also drive new markets and business opportunities. It is also predicted to be the next super-food, globally,’ said Joanna Kane-Potaka of ICRISAT.

In India, millets are slowly becoming fashionable among high paying urban customers too as spunky new agriculture start-ups like New Delhi-based Original Indian Table lead a rediscovery of the country’s traditional foods.