The Akshaya Patra Foundation is an India-based NGO that develops, prepares, and distributes nutritious hot meals to 2 million children daily through the Indian Government’s Mid-day Meal Scheme (MDMS). Akshaya Patra has partnered with HarvestPlus and the Indian Institute of Science to pilot the integration of iron-biofortified pearl millet and zinc-biofortified wheat in their meals menu.
A nutritional efficacy study will be conducted by the Indian Institute of Science as this pilot is rolled out, with a view toward making the case for large-scale mainstreaming of biofortified food products within the MDMS.
As the largest school feeding program in the world, reaching 120 million children, MDMS offers a tremendous opportunity to address micronutrient deficiencies, improve schooling effectiveness, and improve intergenerational opportunity for a vulnerable population, particularly for girl children. Akshaya Patra supplies school meals through 57 kitchens across 12 states and two union territories. Expanding trials with biofortified iron pearl millet and zinc wheat in diverse socio-cultural contexts can help further improve the nutritional profile of Akshaya Patra’s work.
HarvestPlus is part of the CGIAR and is the global leader in the development and delivery of biofortified staple crops. Rigorous evidence shows that regular consumption of biofortified crops improves micronutrient intake, reduces micronutrient deficiency, and improves health outcomes.
Micronutrient deficiency is a widespread problem in India, especially iron and zinc deficiency. Zinc is an essential micronutrient required for healthy growth and development. Yet, Indian diets contain few zinc-rich foods, with an abundance of whole cereal grains and small quantities of legumes; phytates found in these foods inhibit zinc and iron absorption.
Inadequate zinc intake can weaken the immune system, making children more vulnerable to infections and respiratory illnesses (such as pneumonia)—the two leading causes of child mortality globally. For women of reproductive age, poor zinc status has been associated with negative pregnancy outcomes, including pre-term delivery.
According to analysis by HarvestPlus, the National Family Health Survey two consecutive rounds (2015 and 2019-2020) indicate that anemia is widespread among non-pregnant women ages 15-49 between 53 percent and 58 percent; for pregnant women, it ranges between 54 percent to 58 percent; and the highest incidence of anemia is for children ages 6-59 months, ranging from 58 percent to 68 percent.
“School feeding, which integrates nutrition-smart crops like iron pearl millets and zinc wheat, has tremendous potential to not only impact children in the critical years of their physical and cognitive development but also, through spillover effects, to enable farmers and their families to improve their nutritional and livelihoods status. Linking food systems approaches to nutrition like biofortification with social transfer models is a remarkable opportunity for India which benefits from one of the largest school feeding programs in the world,” said Rewa Misra, Head National Policy and Innovative Finance at HarvestPlus.
The partnership will allow both parties to:
- Collaborate on menu development and conduct related efficacy and effectiveness research.
- Coordinate to assess the feasibility for expanding biofortified grain as part of mid-day meal scheme to multiple states.
- Jointly collaborate to engage with and support key government and private sector stakeholders on the opportunity, impacts, and cost/benefits of a nutritionally enhanced mid-day meal program to enable a national scale up of lessons learned from joint research and implementation activities.
- Jointly seek external resources where needed to support their collaborations such as a technical partnership with the Indian Institute of Science and funding partnerships with diverse private, bilateral, and multilateral donors.
- Share data and lessons learned nationally and internationally.
The partners are excited about the opportunity to reach millions more Indian children with healthy, familiar foods that promote their physical, cognitive, and social development by leveraging scientific and practical knowledge in biofortification and school meal development and delivery.
Zinc wheat is currently grown by about 442,000 farming households in India, with an estimated 2.1 million household members benefiting. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given a strong endorsement to staple crop biofortification as a sustainable and cost-effective solution to alleviate malnutrition.