Replacing rice in the mid-day meal (MDM) with small millets can boost the growth of children by nearly 50 per cent over three months, a study carried out among 1,500 children in Karnataka has shown.

The children who participated in the study, jointly conducted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Akshaya Patra Foundation, also rated the meals, designed by scientists and chefs, as highly tasty.

The findings of the study, which appeared in the journal Nutrients, were released on Wednesday by NITI Aayog Member, Ramesh Chand, and the National Rainfed Area Authority CEO, Ashok Dalwai. The results were presented at the Tasting India Symposium here later in the day.

“This is an example of not only a science-backed nutrition solution, but also a link between agriculture and nutrition. It is important that we achieve mainstream consumption of millets and that they are not just for the elite,” said Chand.

“Making it profitable for farmers to grow nutritious foods like millets has to be a key part of the Doubling Farmers’ Income (DFI) vision and millets are important in the rain-fed areas for farmers to cope with climate change and water scarcity,” said Dalwai, who headed the high-level committee which drafted the DFI documents.

The study was carried out among early adolescent school children in four villages — Thathaguni, Kagallipura, Allahali and Chensandra — which are located around Bengaluru. Their growth was assessed using anthropometry measurements, while sensory evaluations were made to determine acceptability.

Scientific study of millet-based meals

“It is not good enough to just say we are going to add millets to the meal,” said S Anitha, a nutritionist at ICRISAT and the study’s corresponding author. “The type of millet used, its variety, how it is cooked and the foods it is combined with are some of the key elements that can make a difference in nutrition. For instance, the amount of iron available in a meal can be doubled by selecting the right variety of millet. This is the first known scientific study of millet-based meals in a school feeding programme.”

The researchers gave the study group children’s meals that included idli , khichdi , upma and bisibella bath, in which rice was replaced by pearl millet (bajra), ragi (finger millet) or little millet (kutki). The anthropometric measurements at the end of the feeding programme were compared with that of the control group children, who consumed fortified rice with sambar.

“Akshaya Patra is looking for ways to improve nutrition in mid-day meals. The millet meals were exceptionally successful and were liked by the children. We appreciate the Karnataka government’s support, and with this positive result, we now hope to garner the support needed to make nutritious millet-based meals available to our future generations,” added Ajay Kavishwar, Head of Research at The Akshaya Patra Foundation.

The authors hoped that policy makers would appreciate the lessons learnt from this study and would take appropriate steps to include millets in the meals given under different welfare schemes. They also called for policies to create a level playing field for the pricing and availability of millets through a Minimum Support Price (MSP) in the Public Distribution Scheme and feeding programmes such as MDMs and the Integrated Child Development Scheme, select millets by varieties in programmes, ensuring maximum nutritional value and impact and promote millets in positive fun ways.

This is highly relevant now as millets have gained attention for their nutritional value and resilience in the face of water scarcity and climate change, making them a viable option for struggling farmers if markets can be further developed, they said.