Millets: superfood to tackle malnutrition

The integration of millets in mid-day meals can boost their nutritional value and tackle malnutrition in children. SATISH BADIGER/DH PHOTO

Home to 43 crore children — the largest number in the world − India holds an enormous responsibility in nurturing the health of its school-going populace. Nutrition is acknowledged as one of the most crucial factors for enhancing human development and in turn, acting as a contributing factor in reduction of poverty levels and economic development.

India has made significant progress in improving rates of undernutrition and malnutrition. The government has realised the need for reducing malnutrition in the country and has accelerated its efforts toward addressing the issue.

Many initiatives for women and child development, including Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Services, Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, National Nutrition Mission and Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, have been launched.

One of the primary objectives of the Mid-Day Meal scheme (MDMS) is to improve the nutritional status of children. The initiative has over 97 million beneficiaries across the country and efforts are being made to implement various measures to enhance their nutritional intake. Mid-day meals are an initiative that also works as an incentive for children to attend school everyday, ensuring education to all.

The integration of millets in mid-day meals is one of the proposed measures, which can further boost their nutritional value. Millet-based food items such as jowar or bajra roti and bisibele bath are rich in protein, dietary fibres, several B vitamins and minerals especially manganese.

The Karnataka government has initiated a pilot project for the same. The project will cover 1,622 beneficiaries from 10 schools in Bengaluru. These children will be served millet-based food items twice a week, in addition to their regular mid-day meals.

The observations from this project will help build evidence-based advocacy in favour of the implementation of this project across the country.

Millets are now being promoted as superfoods, deservingly so, considering that they are highly nutritious and have several health benefits to their credit. They are also high in antioxidants, which make them perfect for a healthy heart, and their low Glycaemic Index (GI) makes them apt for consumption by diabetics as well. At the same time, the fact that millets are gluten free makes them the perfect replacement for wheat-based foods for people with gluten intolerance.

These cereals are rich in calcium, iron, zinc, fibre, starch, vitamin B3, magnesium, and even protein, depending on the variety. Finger millet (ragi), for instance, has thrice the amount of calcium compared to milk.

Similarly, pearl millet (bajra) is known to be rich in iron and zinc. Their rich calcium and iron content makes them perfect health foods for children, and therefore, the idea of integrating millets in mid-day meals has found support from all quarters.

Healthy alternative

The pilot initiative in Bengaluru was tested with sorghum upma and proso bisibele bath. The initiative is being meticulously monitored by experts from the field, and the initial response from children has generally been positive with more than 60% acceptability.

Millet-rich diet is expected to show significant health benefits in children increasing their immunity and metabolism. Globally, millets are increasingly being adopted as an alternative to regular grains such as wheat, rice and corn.

The scalability of the initiative will be largely dependent on integration in the supply chain.

The resurgence of millets, after having lost out to commercial crops such as rice, wheat, and corn in the past, can also be attributed to the fact that they are climate resilient.

In times when several parts of the country are battling drought, growing millets can come as blessing in disguise for farmers with smallholdings.

The integration of millets in mid-day meals through collaboration between the Centre and state’s MDM and their respective departments of agriculture would be mutually beneficial for both, children and farmers.

While children will get highly nutritious food, farmers will have an incentive to opt for these indigenous crops instead of opting for commercially-viable crops which need a lot of water, which, in turn, will reduce their cost of farming, and boost their income and livelihood.

In the long term, it will be a win-win situation resulting in the revival of the indigenous superfood.

(The writer is Director – Communications, Akshaya Patra Foundation)

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Millets: superfood to tackle malnutrition

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