India's food politics is now finding itself at the next frontier. After beef, pork and other so-called 'offensive' foods, it is now the turn of onion and garlic to become the focus of a kerfuffle. Controversy has been cooked up in Karnataka over the lack of garlic and onion in food served to children as part of the mid-day meal scheme.
At the eye of the impending storm is the Akshaya Patra Foundation, an organisation that is linked to ISKCON. It does not include garlic and onion in the meals it prepares, in line with its principles that prohibit the consumption of garlic and onion among others.
Under these restrictions, only 'sattvic', or balanced, food is permitted. Garlic and onion are categorised as 'tamasic', associated with destruction or lethargy, foods under the dietary system derived from Ayurveda, Yoga and the Upanishads.
Akshaya Patra has been asked to include garlic and onions in its food except on Thursdays by the Karnataka state government. As a result of this, the organisation has not signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Karnataka government to continue its partnership for the mid-day meal scheme, under which it serves food to about 4.43 lakh children every day in Karnataka.
The government had instructed Akshaya Patra to include garlic and onion in its food after it received recommendations from the state's Food Commission. "Including onion and garlic not just adds nutrition, but also improves the taste. Considering this, we asked the foundation to follow the state menu, but they have not yet replied to our letter," MR Maruti, joint director of Karnataka's mid-day meal scheme.
Akshaya Patra laid out its position in a statement. "We would like to clarify that our freshly cooked meals are in compliance with the nutrition norms prescribed by the MHRD and Government of Karnataka. It is our constant endeavour to contribute to the Government's efforts in promoting good health and nutrition amongst children which is essential for their holistic growth and development," the statement read.
"The MHRD has set some regulatory norms in serving food to children, which the Akshaya Patra Foundation has been meeting. The food needs to be nutritious, balanced and have the necessary calorific value. Our meals meet these criteria. All the quality measures and controls are in place. We substitute onion and garlic with other equally nutritious vegetables," Kulashekara Chaitanya Dasa, a senior executive of ISKCON told.
"The government can do a comparative study of the food prepared by Akshaya Patra and other NGOs, and tell us what is lacking. We are ready to rectify them. But, they cannot tell us what to put in the food," he added.