Cracking India’s egg debate
What’s the cost of vegetarian school lunches?
My friends always tease me for being indecisive, but you should see me order breakfast at a diner. I don’t even need a menu— I could eat eggs every morning for the rest of my life (served over easy with a side of toast, please!).
In India, feelings about egg consumption are a bit more scrambled. The government feeds over 120 million of the country’s poorest children with free lunch programs in schools and daycares. However, many of India’s powerful political figures are religious vegetarians, and believe that these free meals should not include meat, poultry, fish, or eggs.
But over 50% of India’s population is NOT vegetarian, and impoverished families often cannot afford to purchase protein-rich foods on their own. Without access to balanced meals in school or at home, many of India’s poorest children are protein deficient and malnourished despite receiving free lunches.
Enter the egg. Eggs are an excellent source of protein, and they contain vitamins and nutrients that promote muscle growth, healthy brain activity, and a strong immune system. Research conducted in Thailand concluded that eating three eggs a week was enough to cure protein deficiencies in children.
Many elite Indian politicians argue that serving milk in schools and daycares could address malnutrition in an equally effective way without defying vegetarian values. But milk isn’t “eggactly” the answer to India’s nutrition problem because it is very easily contaminated and more expensive to transport and store than eggs.
Serving eggs is one of the most efficient methods of improving child nutrition, but there’s an even sunnier side. This superfood also improves educational outcomes. “Wherever eggs are introduced, [school] attendance goes up,” said Dipa Sinha, an economist at the Center for Equity Studies in New Delhi. “It’s very popular, because children don’t get it at home.”
Hungry children are also more likely to repeat a grade, fight with their classmates, and have difficulty cooperating with a teacher (check out my colleague’s article here to learn more about how hunger impacts education). Feeding India’s children a nutritious mid-day meal can improve educational outcomes for all students in the classroom.
The benefits of eggs are very eggciting (that was my last egg pun, I promise), but India’s egg debate exposes the tension that can exist between religion and aid programs. Food aid (and all kinds of aid programs for that matter) should be sensitive to situations where those receiving aid have different beliefs from those dispensing it. But where should governments and organizations draw the line when a child’s health is at risk?
Creating a successful aid program is hard, and accounting for religious differences is even harder. In this case, I believe that eggs can play a pivotal role in improving child health in India.
For more information on India’s free lunch program, check out this informative video from the Pulitzer Center that was animated using pieces of fabric from India.
You can increase children's access to nutritious food by signing the petition to get the G7 countries to live up to their committment to lift 500 million people out of hunger and increase food security in TAKE ACTION NOW.