There has been some hue and cry in the media over the quality of food provided by the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) as mid-day meals to the students in schools in Karnataka.

The criticism is two-pronged. One is about the alleged lack of nutrients needed for school children in the food supplied. The second is about APF not having onions and garlic in the menu, and this is seen as imposing the notions of 'Brahminical purity' on school kids.

On social media platforms, pro and anti-APF views have been expressed, even though the two main parties involved, the APF and the Karnataka government, have not spoken on the issue yet.

Meanwhile, sources in the know say that the Akshaya Patra Foundation, which is handling the mid-day meals scheme in 12 different states, is planning to extend its services to many others, and thus is being targeted by some vested interests in a concerted bid to tarnish its 'good work'.

Speaking on conditions of anonymity, a source working with the NGOs and activists, said that the APF has come under fire because the NGOs-activists lobby is not taking too kindly to the fact that the APF is being run by ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). "There is no other way to put this. We cannot play around with words. APF is targeted because of its Hindu cultural moorings," the source added.

The APF is not propagating religion, and it not involved in any kind of missionary activity through the mid-day meals programme, the source continued. "But you must understand that the NGO lobby has one particular type of religious mindset, and it frowns upon intrusion by 'outsiders' into its fief."

The source further pointed out that the allegations against the APF are all over the place. "They claim the food is bland. But it is made to specifications meant for school students. At any rate, it is a question of taste which can be set right easily. One news report apparently quotes a couple of students. But is that sample size enough to question an outfit that caters to lakhs of students with varied tastes?"

The charge of lack of nutrients also does not hold, he said. "The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) has okayed it. But they are not happy with it. Do you mean to say they know better than a central agency involved in evaluating food feels?"  

For the record, the NIN report, submitted in February, categorically says that the nutritive value of APF’s meals “certainly meet and often exceed the prescribed energy and protein requirements”. NIN scientists, who visited APF’s kitchens also vouched for their safety standards. 

The lack of diversity in the food, especially if you are talking about it from the point of view of lack of onion and garlic, is true, the source said. "But none of the Akshaya Patra kitchens allow onion and garlic. This is the rule even for the wedding halls run by ISKCON. It is their belief in satvik food. You may not agree with it. But you cannot question it. At any rate, they have said this upfront even before they started providing food in 2000. It is not as if they have not met the conditions they have agreed to."

Also, APF, which is run through donations from well-meaning people, is said to be putting in Rs 100 crore for serving mid-day meals to students in Karnataka.  

In all of India, APF serves 1,762,133 children in 42 locations across 12 states, providing them with freshly cooked meals on all school days. Currently, it implements the mid-day meal programme in 15,024 schools of the country. The number of schools covered varies from one state to another.

Schools in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh are served by the APF.  The maximum number of schools covered are in Karnataka, where the food cooked at customised centralised kitchen, reaches 2887 schools and feeds roughly 4,49,079 students.

"As you can see, the numbers, staggering as they are, also underlines the committed effort put in by APF workers and volunteers. It is this good work that is sought to be undermined by certain elements for reasons that are not hard to guess," the source said.