Pheroze L. Vincent finds out how local communities are coping with food price inflation

Nithya, a mother from Arivoli Nagar Slum Clearance Board resettlement, buys cheap leftover fish from mongers in the evening. “How can we deprive our children of non veg when the neighbours are having it?”

“We are lucky if we can afford non veg on Sundays,” adds Vasanthi- a mother from Kuniamuthur. She says that a family of five only consumes about 250g of meat or fish a week, these days. Normally, an adult consumes around 200g of meat or fish for a meal.

Chitrakala, a mother from Kurichi, says that women folk now leave lentils and non vegetarian dishes for the children and men at home.

Many poor women, like the three mothers, who work in the city, have lunch only if their employers provide it. “Else they manage with tea and biscuits,” says Dr. Kezevino Aram, Director and Coordinator of Community Health at Shanti Ashram, an NGO in Kovaipudur.

“Daily expenses have gone up from Rs. 50 to Rs. 100. Eggs cost three rupees. Coriander and curry leaves, which were free, are now expensive,” adds Chitrakala. She has decreased vegetables in her kitchen from 3kg to 2kg a month. Vasanthi has cut down lentils from 500g to 250g a week for her family of four.

“There is hidden hunger. Merely providing food isn't enough. Children, adolescent girls and pregnant women need a lot of nutrients. But they cannot afford it,” explains Dr. Aram.

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), started in 1975, is one of the world's largest schemes to prevent malnutrition in children and provide pre-primary schooling. This is a centrally funded scheme, implemented by state governments. The ICDS in Coimbatore district runs 1688 anganwadis that cater to more than 80,000 children under the age of six.

These children are from poor families, worst hit by inflation. The anganwadis serve them lunch; which is usually a khichdi of rice, lentils and vegetables. They also give high-nutrition ladoos for children aged six months to three years and, expectant and new mothers. These ladoos are made of ragi, wheat, roasted Bengal gram, jaggery and vitamin mix.

The amount allocated to the ICDS for vegetables for a single noon meal is 20p per child. Individually this seems like nothing, but collectively for all the children in an anganwadi this gives some nutrition, explains Dr. G. Gnanasegaran, District Programme Officer, ICDS.

With the current rise in prices, the amount of vegetables in these noon meals has fallen. “In villages we can pluck some green vegetables for free, but it is still difficult to manage,” says S. Revathi, an ICDS nutritionist.

Sources at the ICDS say that Re.1 per child per day for vegetables, firewood, condiments and salt would be more rational to end malnutrition than the 44p given now. Rice and pulses come free from the state's civil supplies corporation.

Statistics show that around 20 percent of children in the anganwadis suffer some degree of malnourishment. This comes at a time when “people are accessing all possible free sources of food,” says Dr. Aram.

“Earlier, kids would go home for lunch, despite the availability of noon meals. Now parents insist they eat in school. There is no lunch at home. The stigma associated with accepting free food has gone,” she adds.

Cash crunch

“Family budgets are shrinking and there are competing needs of food, health and education. “Most BPL families are perpetually in debt because of food expenses. They hardly save,” explains the doctor. According to her the best bet now is the 10-rupee-food-budget. This includes traditional ladoos, chickpeas with jaggery and an egg or a banana. It takes Rs. 3 to Rs.6 to make ladoos like paruppu urandai, pori urandai, kadalai urandai and ellu urandai.

Nutritionist Revathi adds that people nowadays voluntarily contribute chickpeas, soya nuggets and other high protein supplements to anganwadis. There is a sense of community living.

Chitrakala says, “For families like mine both parents need to work to be able to provide for the family. I can work because my parents feed the children during the day.”

Mesmerised by advertisements, many poor families waste money on chips, chocolates and popcorn, when they can't afford milk. Most adults in these families now have black tea or coffee, leaving the milk for the children. In 2009, Shanti Ashram found that in 10 villages around Coimbatore the average milk consumption of a child was 70 ml a day. That's three quarters of a small tumbler. United States' departments of Health and Human Services and, Agriculture recommend two to three cups of milk a day for children.

Another survey in Kuniamuthur found that 68 per cent of children aged three were underweight. This figure was 74 per cent in Arivoli Nagar.

Dr. Aram believes that “Society is accountable for its children. It is possible to overcome malnutrition when they are still young. Otherwise their earning capacities are diminished when they are older, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.”

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