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Nutrition In India: PETA India Calls For Vegan Mid-Day Meals, Experts Differ

PETA India has written to education ministries across India to point out health dangers of meat, egg, and dairy consumption, but some experts differ

Mid-Day Meal scheme served about 9.17 crore children in 11.35 lakh schools, across the country in 2018-19: Ministry of Human Resource Development

New Delhi: The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India has written to all the state and union territory education ministries, asking for implementation of vegan mid-day meals (MDM) for students. The letters are written on behalf of an association of 15 doctors and nutritionists, urging the authorities to ensure that midday meal programmes in schools consist of only healthy, humane, plant-based foods. The request letters were also accompanied by informative brochure, which was accessed by NDTV, which detailed the health dangers of meat, egg, and dairy consumption.

In the brochure the consortium of doctors points to modern research, showing the link between numerous health concerns including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and certain cancers to the consumption of animal-derived foods.

It further explains that eggs and cow milk are among the biggest allergens for children. Antibiotic residue can be found in such foods, and meat, eggs, and cow milk are common causes of food-borne illnesses.

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PETA also points out that fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and pulses, on the other hand, are packed with fibre, are rich in vitamins and minerals, free of cholesterol, and low in saturated fat. The brochure contains a chart showing that readily available and affordable vegan foods often contain more protein or calcium than eggs or cow milk.

Wholly plant-powered lunches would keep kids well-fed and energised and also prevent countless sensitive animals from suffering and being easier on the environment, says PETA India Vegan Outreach Coordinator Dr Kiran Ahuja.

The brochure also cites the World Health Organization’s statement that half of all cases of malnutrition are linked to diarrhoea and intestinal parasites, often stemming from unsanitary conditions, and that the key to addressing malnutrition lies in ensuring hygienic conditions – not in giving kids foods like eggs and cow milk, which can make them even sicker.

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NDTV reached out to Public Health Foundation of India’s Head of Nutrition Research, Professor Dr Shweta Khandelwal to understand the kind of impact a vegan mid-day meal can have on a child. Dr. Khandelwal told NDTV,

While I agree that fruits and vegetables (plant based meals in general) are very healthy and provide lots of essential micronutrients, fibre etc, I think switching completely to plant based foods will not be a winning strategy when it comes of public health and nutrition. First of all, MDM only provides one small supplementary meal to children. It does not ensure or provide whole day’s nutrition.

Dr. Khandelwal further said that the existing MDM in a lot of places generally are way too adulterated or diluted to ensure desired nutrition. She explains,

Furthermore, as it is, we do not give any non-vegetarian items, except egg in some states, in national nutrition programs. Most states are giving locally acceptable vegetarian recipes like milk, khichdi, dal-rice, porridge type of items, which are often diluted beyond prescribed limits, often not liked by children in terms of taste and quality, prepared or served in unhygienic or unclean manner by demotivated overburdened staff, among other issues. So why this strong endorsement for vegan or vegetarian foods alone for better health? Why not make noise for better nutrition overall, better recipes, better quality ingredients, better infrastructure with high standards of hygiene or better pay for staff so that they are motivated? Children require high quality protein, energy and fats plus micronutrients especially during early years. Let us not try and get their nourishment fall prey to unwarranted, superimposed ideas of what we think they should eat.

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When it comes to PETA’s views on the impact of consumption of non-vegetarian food items on one’s health, Dr. Khandelwal says,

Please note that health issues especially rising non communicable diseases are attributable only to consumption of animal sourced foods is not completely true. Food item, preparation and quantity consumed also matters significantly. Scientific evidence will confirm that except for processed red meat, no other non-vegetarian food items (in moderation) have been shown to be bad for health. In fact high fat, high sugar and high salt foods are the ones repeatedly and consistently shown to be worse for health. These can be sourced from any type of food, vegan, vegetarian or non-vegetarian. So strongly advocating only plant based meals without talking about method of preparation, quantity, quality of ingredients is not very useful.

Also adding a word of caution, Basanta Kumar Kar, Recipient of Global Nutrition Leadership Award and a Transform Nutrition Champion said,

I appreciate and respect the ethical and other considerations put forth on vegetarian diet. You may appreciate that our diet and food system is a key driver for good nutrition and disease-free society.
India has a double burden on malnutrition and needs to address already diluted food system. Several studies and research(s) suggest that animal foods have the highest quality protein sources and animal proteins tend to contain a good balance of all the amino acids that the human body needs. Some plant proteins are low in certain amino acids.

Mr. Kar further noted that India needs to focus on eliminating malnutrition on priority,

India needs to address the protein hunger to address all forms of malnutrition and all-pervasive micronutrient malnutrition through improving/diversifying both production and farming system which can include poultry, fishery production etc. In order to justify the arguments on vegetarian food, I would suggest, we undertake action research projects on vegetarian diets in selected aspirational districts in multiple states and if the evidence suggests the reduction in malnutrition (both undernutrition and obesity/overweight), we might then consider the rationale on vegetarian diet.

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Mid-Day Meals In India

Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme of India is considered as the world’s largest school meal programme serving hot and freshly cooked meals to emaciated children, according to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). As per the government data, in the year 2018-19, MDM scheme served about 9.17 crore children in 11.35 lakh schools, across the country.

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