Study raises questions on nutritional value of PDS food items

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Vasco: The nutritional benefit of rice and sugar distributed under a national food subsidy programme in India may be limited, says findings published in Journal of Social Policy by a research team comprising members from Oxford and Lancaster Universities, BITS Pilani in India and Bocconi University in Italy.

As per a press note issued here by Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani, K K Birla Goa campus, the findings under ‘Subsidising rice and sugar, the PDS and nutritional outcomes in Andhra Pradesh India’ show that it is important from a long-term perspective to consider carefully the nutritional value of foods on offer through state provisioning adding, “Addressing caloric shortfalls in the short term may save lives, but subsidised food items of limited nutritional value may not improve longer-term problems.”

India’s main food subsidy programme – the Public Distribution System (PDS) provides sugar, rice, and wheat to households at reasonably low costs to improve their nutrition intake and attain food security. Although the programme aims to improve nutritional outcomes through its subsidies, the research team saw no evidence of improvements when children received subsidised rice and sugar.

“Today, one in every nine people in the world is hungry. In India, 38 per cent of children under 5 experience long-term malnutrition that impact their growth, cognition and psycho-social development and perpetuate a cycle of intergenerational poverty. This already alarming situation is compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak and the measures to contain it,” reveals the researchers.

Food subsidy programmes are a key component of efforts to combat food insecurity and malnutrition around the globe, including in India. Subsidy programmes can offer important caloric and nutrient supplementation, and may also free up income for households to spend on other vital items. However, it is also possible that subsidising items of limited nutritional value can promote unhealthy dietary patterns.

The study also found that particularly for wealthier households, the subsidies encouraged the consumption of less nutritious foods, with children in households receiving sugar subsidies snacking on sugary treats. Data on children’s nutrition came from the longitudinal Young Lives Survey, conducted in Andhra Pradesh.

“Importantly, our findings suggest that nutritional outcomes and food subsidies need to be considered over time rather than as a snapshot. This is essential for understanding not just the short-term effects of subsidies, but also the association with long-term nutritional outcomes,” stated Dr Jasmine Fledderjohann of Lancaster University.

“The subsidised foods available in the PDS may very well prevent severe malnutrition in the short term by addressing caloric deficiencies, but rice and sugar subsidies appear not to improve longer-term nutritional outcomes,” she explained.

“Our findings suggest the subsidies should be carefully reviewed. It is possible that other more nutrient-dense foods could offer greater benefits for improving nutrition,” said Dr Sukumar Vellakkal of the BITS Pilani Goa campus.