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You are here: Home | Poverty | Food security | Urban poverty and the food crisis | Biscuits for breakfast: Empty calories for the hungry poor

Biscuits for breakfast: Empty calories for the hungry poor

By Maheen Mirza

A packet of glucose biscuits and tea is the standard breakfast for Kalpana’s three children in Indra Nagar basti. Popsicles and Kurkure are favourites with Lata’s son. The third in this series reveals how the urban lifestyle of migrant workers in slums forces children and adults to depend on low-nutrition, commercially packaged food that puts women and children at greater risk of malnutrition

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series here

The year 2009 saw a tremendous rise in the price of essential food commodities. Purchasing foodgrain from the market has become increasingly difficult for poorer communities. For communities that migrate to urban areas and lose access to natural resources, the market is the only source of food.  

Furfuri Bai and her family moved to Bhopal around 1995 in search of work. Her husband is a skilled tin metal worker and managed to get enough work to sustain the family. The other members of the basti pick scrap or ask for food and money for a living. 

“Everything in the city had to be bought. No firewood, not a tree to pluck a fruit from or a field to plant it in.” Like Furfuri Bai, this baffles most people who belong to communities that used to depend on natural common property resources like forests and water bodies for food and other needs before they came to the city. However, the rigid restrictions on the use of forests imposed by the government, has forced these adivasi (Gond) people to move to Bhopal.   

The interplay between the market and food security for the urban poor is a complex one. They depend on the market to earn an income as well as to exchange it for various commodities. But the income earned is never commensurate to the expenditure. Though daily wage earners may earn more, over a period of time their existence is more precarious than those who have regular work and slightly less income. Since they earn on a day-to-day basis, their income from daily wages does not go into asset-building, physical or skill-based. Almost three-fourths of the income is spent on food.   

“Can a shop really be like the forest?” asks a young mother from the Gautam Nagar slum in Bhopal. “Here, in Bhopal, it is. Toss some coins and it will shower its blessings on you. The tragedy is we never have any,” she laughs. She had a difficult delivery and was underweight throughout. Six months later, she still feels too weak even to walk. Her child is also underweight and though she proudly shows the immunisation card proclaiming he has received all the necessary teekas (immunisation) to date, she knows that unless she feeds him, the immunisation is of no use. She will need to buy food, tonics and medicine.  But for that she needs to get back to her work of scrap-picking. Her husband alone cannot make enough money.   

Malnutrition among children of urban poor communities is a serious problem. Not being able to eat adequate amounts with reasonably nutritious content does not just mean going hungry. It means losing strength, immunity and a depletion of the body itself. In such a condition, women who have children take a long time to recover from deliveries and invariably have underweight and malnourished children. Levels of anaemia are also very high among women and children.   

The National Family Health Surveys show that there has been a massive increase in the percentage of children who have been fully immunised in the urban areas of Madhya Pradesh. From 41% in 1998-99 they increased to over 68% in 2005-06. What is worrying is that the percentage of children who are underweight has also increased – from 44% to over 52% in the same period. In the past few years, service providers have concentrated on increasing immunisation; ensuring adequate nutrition is losing priority on the national agenda.  

The basti in Gautam Nagar which has about 50 families has seen more than 15 infant and children’s deaths in the past five years. The cause is malnutrition. Children, who manage to survive, show definite signs of food deprivation – distended bellies, swollen feet, stunting, and light brown or golden hair. The inadequate food, work and the unfulfilled needs of a growing body has led to many children succumbing to repeated bouts of illness. Mothers, who are the primary caretakers, have little money, strength and time to manage these adverse conditions.  

A common belief among people residing in the basti is that it is nutritious to feed children glucose biscuits dissolved in water, tea or thin milk. This is often given when the child is ready for semi-solid foods as a substitute for Cerelac or Bournvita which are very expensive but recommended by all doctors and more forcefully by advertisements. When people do manage to buy these expensive baby foods, they use them in small quantities to make them last longer. This does not provide adequate nutrition.  

People in the bastis buy just enough ingredients for the next meal. They end up paying more this way, but there are several reasons for this habit. First, income is irregular and erratic for daily wage earners so whatever they earn in one day has to sustain them till they get the next wage, which may not necessarily be the next day. Second, the income is quite low. In bastis like Gautam Nagar, a number of women and children pick scrap for a living and earn about Rs 100-120 a day. This does not pay for two meals a day for a family of six. Third, there is no space to store food even if it is bought in larger quantities. Homes are very small with no proper arrangements for drinking water or sanitation. They are made of flimsy material like plastic, cardboard and scrap, offering little protection against the cold, sun and rain.  

The basti at Gautam Nagar is a typical example of the living conditions of the urban poor – about 50 families live on a 3,000 square foot plot. In such conditions people are unable to store much food. Dry grain is kept securely in metal containers but it is impossible to store meat and vegetables. 

Some communities, especially those closely linked to agriculture, had traditional ways of preserving and storing food. Grain was stored in special storage structures made of locally available material and treated to keep it safe from insects. Maize was usually stored high off the ground to keep it safe from rotting and pests. Fish was also dried and preserved especially by communities that travelled. “In our village, food that is preserved, like aamchur, amla, ber etc, is dried in the sun or we make badi, papad,” comments a village woman visiting her relatives in Bhopal. 

In the city there is neither the time nor the space to carry out such activities. “We have just enough time to clean the grain we get from the ration shop,” says Mamta, a domestic worker from Indra Nagar, another basti in Bhopal. Access to natural resources ensured that there was enough fuelwood, shelter and fodder for animals along with some contingency food. The only way of getting nutrition in the city is by buying it. But it’s expensive, so people buy low nutrition processed foods available in the market.    

Processed, pre-cooked and fully cooked food is readily available in the market. It is made more enticing by the insistent advertising. For working people it is much easier to eat pre-cooked food and save on time and energy. However, the amount spent on processed food is often equal to, if not more than, the money required to buy raw materials for an entire meal. Further, such food is mostly empty calories.  

Some families with more regular incomes manage to have two home-cooked meals in a day, while more vulnerable ones are able to put together just one such meal.   

Kalpana, a domestic worker from the Indra Nagar slum came here from Khandwa district after marriage about 12 years ago. Indra Nagar is a heterogeneous slum and there are about 70 households of her backward caste community living here. Most of the women are domestic workers and the men are daily wage workers with irregular incomes. Kalpana’s three children and husband depend on her income. She works in four houses. Every morning, before going to school, each child has a packet of biscuits with tea. “This keeps them going till they get the mid-day meal at 11am. Every morning I spend Rs 11 on their snack.”  

After they leave for school Kalpana fills water and cooks their lunch before setting out for work herself. After returning from work, she and her daughter cook their evening meal and they eat it together. Most people in Kalpana's section of the basti are able to have two cooked meals a day.   

On the other hand, people from the Gautam Nagar basti are just about able to put together one meal a day; for the rest of the day they survive on what is available to them from the roadside eateries or dhabas. “Samosas, poha, tea, biscuits, toast, we buy these things from the dhabas and eat them on our way to work,” says Rinku. “In the evening we cook and eat – a kilo of flour costing Rs 15, a handful of tomatoes, onions and chilly, some oil and masala worth Rs 20, and Rs 10- 20 worth of chicken remains.” Almost half the day’s earnings go into this meal which is far from enough to satisfy hunger let alone nourish a family of six people.  

In households with working women, children are usually given money or earn money themselves to get food of their choice, which is entirely based on taste and preference and has nothing to do with nutrition. These food items are more expensive than food prepared at home. “Between eating a banana and a pepsi (popsicle), children prefer the latter. It is tastier. My child insists on having a packet of Kurkure. If I don't give the money, he will ask for money at the traffic signal and buy it himself,” says Lata from the basti at Gautam Nagar. Notably, in lower and middle class families with more regular incomes, consumption of street and processed food is lower and is consumed in addition to cooked meals, not as a substitute for it. 

Given this hand-to-mouth existence, it is not unusual to run into a food crisis. It could be triggered by an illness, a bad day of waste collection or the random rounding up by the police and being kept in a police lock-up sometimes for days. When that happens people are forced to take a loan to buy some food. They often use their ration cards as security for the loan. Interest rates can be as high as 10% a month. With the partial relief provided by the ration card gone, dependence on the market is total and expenditure on food increases manifold. It takes a long while, usually three to four months, to reclaim the ration card, as recovery from the crisis, finding work and building back reserves to pay off the loan takes time. Often, once the debt cycle begins, there is no end to it. 

The urban poor are squeezed not only by rising food prices but also expense on basic services like education and health. A proliferating consumer-based health system (formal and informal) continuously drains resources from people and has shifted the emphasis from basic nutrition to curative expenditure (tonics, injections, IV drips and supplementary nutritional alternatives).  

The environment in which slum populations live is not a healthy one. This makes it easy to contract infections and delays recovery. Whether it is housing or safe drinking water, or sanitation, services provided to this section are the worst and they have little power to negotiate for any improvement.  

Most policies of the government seem to encourage liquidation of the assets of the poor, whether it is eviction when land is acquired without compensation or whether it is the privatisation of essential services. The market appears to give consumers a lot of choice, but this is not a choice that the poor can afford. Even government policies aimed at ensuring food security have become targeted and selective as a result of market pressure. Importing foods like ‘wonder rice’ and ‘plumpy nut’ (peanut paste with sugar and milk powder and fortified with vitamins and minerals) to deal with severe malnutrition reflects this. Such schemes make people more dependent on the market, but since the market does not provide them with the foods they really need and prefer, they have become consumers with no choice. 

(Maheen Mirza works in Bhopal and researches and documents social issues. This is the third in her series on nutrition among the urban poor in Bhopal, which has been researched on the Infochange Media Fellowship 2009)  

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