Millets should be mainstreamed for better nutritional outcomes in children

Civil society organisations can play an enabling role in helping the government to combat malnutrition by introducing millets in ICDS  

By Bindu Mohanty, Abhijit Mohanty
Published: Friday 17 February 2023
Mainstreaming millets for better nutritional outcomes of children
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

Over 3.3 million children in India are malnourished and 1.7 million of them have severe acute malnutrition. Some states, in collaboration with the civil societies and women self-help groups (WSHG), have introduced millet-based diets, a forgotten grain to address malnutrition and improve the nutritional outcomes of children.  

The central government also pushed the production and promotion of the grain in the Union Budget 2023-24. 

The nutritional indicators in several Indian states are poor: 42 per cent of children in Bihar, 42 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, 39 per cent in Jharkhand and 46 per cent in Meghalaya are stunted, according to the National Family Health Survey, 2019-21.

In Maharashtra and Gujarat, 25 per cent children are wasted – the highest in the country; In Bihar, 22 per cent children are wasted and 41 per cent underweight. 

Malnutrition in childhood perpetuates the cycle of poverty and ill-health, reduces productivity, and slows economic growth. 

India introduced the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme in 1975, a flagship early childhood care and development programme to address malnutrition among children and women of reproductive age. To further strengthen the efforts to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030, the central government launched the Prime Minister’s Overreaching Scheme for Holistic Nourishment, also known as POSHAN 2.0. 

Under the POSHAN 2.0 scheme, major emphasis has been given to promote dietary diversity and food fortification, nurturing traditional systems of knowledge and mainstreaming millets. The scheme promotes regional food culture to bridge dietary gaps and develop sustainable health. 

“Good governance and effective delivery of Poshan 2.0 can usher a nutrition revolution,” said Basanta Kumar Kar, chief advisor, Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security. Millets are a powerhouse of nutrition and an effective tool to address malnutrition, he added. 

Millets are rich in diverse nutrients, including protein, dietary fibre, Vitamin B, calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, potassium, copper and selenium. For example, 100 grams of finger millet, also known as ragi, offers 344 milligrams of calcium, making ragi the best grain for obtaining dietary calcium. They are gluten-free and non-acidic, the perfect combination for children’s demanding but soft digestive system.

The grain is cultivated majorly in 21 states over an area of 12.53 million hectares, producing 15.53 million tonnes with a yield of 1,237 kilogram per hectare, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of  India.

Major millet-producing states in the country include Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Haryana.

However, as millets are the “orphaned crops” of the Green Revolution, reintroducing millets back to public diets is easier said than done. The millet supply chain has long been broken and every aspect of it from production to processing to making ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook food needs to be addressed. 

Millets are a powerhouse of nutrition, but there is a need to experiment with recipes that  are easy to cook, retain the nutrients and are also relished by people. 

Admirable work has been done by civil society organisations (CSO) across the country to bring back millets into diets. Government support of such initiatives will enable the inclusion of millets in ICDS.

Promising initiatives

In several states, CSOs have collaborated with state governments and other key government institutions such as the department of women and child development, NITI Aayog as well as the Food Corporation of India to introduce millets in ICDS. 

An early notable pilot initiative was undertaken by the Government of Andhra Pradesh to partially substitute rice with millets in its state nutritional programs (SNP) in Seetampeta, Srikakulam district with the help of DHAN Foundation and Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN). 

Several decades ago, Pipal Tree in Karanataka also introduced millets in mid-day meal schemes in tribal areas with the help of the state government. In recent years, commendable work has been done by WASSAN in three districts of Telangana and two districts of Odisha. 

In Odisha, under the Odisha Millets Mission and by leveraging District Mineral Funds, ragi ladoo mix is provided as supplementary food to over 150,000 pre-school children in 6,077 Anganwadi centres in Sundargarh and Keonjhar districts. 

In Maharashtra, Pragati Abhiyan, is working with the Tribal Development Department to revive ragi cultivation and consumption in Thane, Palghar and Nashik districts. As machinery for millet processing, including servicing of such machines, is a bottleneck in promoting people-centric approaches to millets, Pragati Abhiyan introduced Ragi Threshers at the block level and trained Anganwadi workers in millet recipes. 

To generate public awareness about the importance of millet, last year, the Rural Technology and Development Centre (RTDC) and other CSOs in collaboration with government departments celebrated “Poshan Day'' in the Mandi district and offered different millet-based dishes to children, Anganwadi workers and ICDS supervisors. 

In the semi-arid regions of Madhya Pradesh, women federations have taken the lead role in the processing and supplying of kodo millet bars to over 38,000 pre-school children across 1,913 Anganwadi centres in the Dindori district, in collaboration with the department of women and child development. Kodo is a highly nutritious minor millet that grows well in that agroclimatic zone. 

These instances illustrate that CSOs can play a key role in helping governments to introduce millets in ICDS through empowering community-based organisations, such as farmer-producer organisations (FPO)  and WSHGs to establish backward and forward linkages, supporting rural entrepreneurs to set up millet processing units, researching and collating the best recipes for millet-based dishes and creating behavioural changes among the people for consumption of millets.  

Challenges and suggestions

“Ensuring diversity of millets could be a potential solution to move from food security to nutrition security,” said Joanna Kane-Potaka, deputy director-general, International Rice Research Institute. Only adding millets into school or nutrition programmes would not be enough, she added. 

Identification, documentation and promotion of certain millet and varieties that have the highest levels of iron, zinc, calcium and protein are important. “The millet-based recipes should be prepared in a culturally sensitive way. This will attract consumers and uphold their traditional food culture,” Joanna suggested.

Including the right food ingredients with millet recipes will ensure good bioavailability. For instance, the high calcium content in ragi needs vitamin D to help absorption, and the high iron content in many millets need vitamin C to help the absorption. 

Similarly, millets should be used in their whole grain form, preservative free and avoid chemical processing. This will enhance the retention of nutrition contents in millets. 

“Lack of knowledge on millet recipes and cooking often results in loss of nutrients,” said Usha Dharamraj, senior technical officer, Central Food Technological Research Institute. Also, poor processing facilities in rural areas makes it difficult to cook unprocessed millets, she pointed out. 

Promoting efficient processing machineries at the local level is needed. A single type of dehuller may not be suitable for all the millet crops, since their morphological features differ mainly in size, shape and husk content and nature. 

People-centric approaches to the millet value chain demands that storage, processing and value-addition of millets are decentralised to the block- and district-level. Decentralised approaches also allow for the cultivation of local varieties of millets that grow well in agroecological zones and are preferred by the local communities.

Other co-benefits of decentralised approaches are that it is easier to work out demand and supply constraints within the district, as was done in Odisha and Telangana where millets were introduced into ICDS in selected districts. Informal community-managed seed systems can also be strengthened with participatory research and development to ensure quality seeds for preferred cultivars. 

A major issue the government can help with is offering the same parity in subsidies to millets as given to rice for millet-based products supplied to ICD. Rice, for instance, is available for ICDS at a subsidised price of Rs 4 per kg and the cost of a rice-based meal per child is Rs. 6.13. 

Similar foxtail millet meals have a unit cost of Rs 8.32 with equal standard of energy and proteins but with enhanced micronutrients and fibre. If subsidy is extended, then millet- based meals might even be cheaper or at par with rice. 

Last but not least, field experience shows that assured demand for millets in SNPs allows WSHGs and FPOs with small capital to supply to the private markets. All of these lead to diversified and better rural incomes benefitting millions of farmers, entrepreneurs and consumers. "

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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