As pointed out by Edward Fischer, ‘Food is more than macro- and micronutrients, it is intimately linked to identity and social relations.’ Food and nutritional practices passed on through the generations have shaped social identities.
Annadana, the sharing of available food resources, has been a common cultural practice in India, and continues to be an important aspect of people’s way of life. The concepts of annabahulya (growing an abundance of food) and annadana traditionally formed the essence of dharmik living in our country. In fact, annadana was recognized as the most effective way of a civilized living. As pointed out by J.K. Bajaj and M.D. Srinivas of the Centre for Policy Studies, this noblest of all acts is considered to be the foundation of civilized living.
‘Indians in the past have laid extraordinary emphasis on growing food in abundance and sharing it in abundance. In fact, Indians, up to the present times, seem to have always looked upon an abundance of food as the primary condition of civilization, and sharing of food was for us the primary discipline of civilized living. And indeed it is the discipline of civilised living that we call dharma. This attitude towards food and the sharing of food is enshrined in the most basic texts of Indian antiquity. A text like the Taittiriya Upanishad, gives expression to this Indian attitude towards food with unsurpassable intensity.’
While traditional Indian dietary practices and culinary culture have taken care of our nutritional needs in a myriad ways, over the decades, our food cultivation and consumption patterns have undergone significant shifts. If we are to address the challenges of hunger and malnutrition comprehensively, we need to revisit and learn from ancient traditions and cultural heritage. For instance, we would do well to encourage the cultivation and consumption of traditional foods. Millets like ragi, jowar, and bajra, which were an integral part of traditional Indian diets, have been replaced by wheat and rice, which are also more profitable to grow. Millets are still grown in many parts of the country, however, and including them in our diets will help improve the overall nutritional status of people.