Dotted all over Dharavi are little stores or selling goodies for children. These stores sell potato chips, biscuit packets, instant noodles, and other snacks for as less as five rupees. Children as young as three years in the area frequent these stores to get their regular dose of junk food.
While the phenomenon of junk food leading to obesity is a well known phenomenon in the US, it also has a role to play in urban malnutrition. The easy availability of junk food is a huge problem, especially in places such as Dharavi.
Women in Dharavi who are pressed for time are not always able to devote time for hand feeding children, especially when they are very young. Giving a piece of biscuit is a good way to get a child to eat on his or her own without worrying about the child being hungry. The understanding of nutrition is scant (many do not know what it means) and mothers are usually satisfied if the child eats, irrespective of the quality of food.
Some are even taken in by the advertising and talk about nutritional value of biscuits in particular. Attributing nutritional value to biscuits, some women refer to biscuits as “glucose biscuits”. Some feel that if there is a fruit illustrated on the cover, it has some additional nutrients.
Children are seen scampering towards shops with five or ten rupees in hand asking for either biscuits or chips. They also go to wada pau or bhajia Chinese food stalls Many forgo regular meals (dal-chawal, vegetables, fish etc) for this kind of food with very low nutritive value. In this context the packaging of products targeted to this sector seems deliberate. Shopkeepers say that they sell over 50 packets of biscuits and chips per day.
Community organisers from SNEHA are working hard towards increasing the knowledge of nutrition in the area and the importance of feeding children home cooked food. Many mothers now understand that “outside food” is not always very good, and should try to cook fresh food at home for the children. Some children who are left at the day care centres at SNEHA also develop the habit of eating fresh food which can be nurtured at home. This may go a long way in educating the community about nutrition.