Named Project Dhoop, the programme encourages schools to reschedule their morning assemblies to between 11 AM and 1 PM, in order to ensure students get maximum vitamin D absorption via natural sunlight.
Conceptualised by McCann Health and supported by Kwality, the initiative was set up in collaboration with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and North Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) Schools.
Vitamin D deficiency has been an ongoing problem in India despite most areas of the country receiving plenty of sunshine all year round. Studies have shown that over 90% of students across India are vitamin D-deficient, and in Delhi alone, 90% to 97% of schoolchildren between six and 17 years of age lack vitamin D.
According to the FSSAI press release, fish and fish products are the only food sources with naturally occurring vitamin D, and most Indians obtain vitamin D through sunlight exposure.
Sunlight converts cholesterol in the skin to vitamin D through its actions in the liver and kidneys, but the use of sunblock, as well as long work hours spent indoors, are among the factors responsible for vitamin D deficiency.
What's the Dhoop?
At Project Dhoop's launch event in New Delhi (which 600 schoolchildren attended), FSSAI CEO Pawan Agaral said: "Despite the fact that most children suffer from vitamin D deficiency in India, most of us are not aware of its serious consequences.
"Project Dhoop's Noon Assembly is an innovative and effective concept to ensure that school students get adequate vitamin D through sunlight, while also opting for food products like milk and edible oils that are fortified with vitamins A and D."
He added that consuming fortified foods (identified by the +F symbol on their packaging) was an inexpensive way to tackle micronutrient deficiencies without any drastic change in dietary habits or lifestyles, and that "both fortified milk and edible oils are now readily available across the country".
Also present was Kwality's president and Head of Business transformation, who said, "Kwality has fortified many of its milk and milk products with vitamin D and other essential nutrients. We are proud to support FSSAI's +F fortified logo on our products and be a part of Project Dhoop."
Another attendee, endocrinologist Dr RK Marwaha, said: "Contrary to popular belief that morning sunshine is best for our bones, it is actually the sunshine from 11 AM to 1 PM that is most beneficial for increasing vitamin D levels in the human body, because of the UVB radiation.
"Interestingly, 40% to 60% of adult bone mass is accumulated during childhood. Hence, it is very important that children are exposed to sunshine for stronger bones and immune system."
He also said exposing 18% of the body's surface area without sunscreen for 30 to 45 minutes at noon was all that was needed for adequate vitamin D absorption.
He suggested: "If school uniforms were designed such that both forearms and the face are exposed to sunlight easily, this would be equivalent to 12% of the body's surface area.
"Hence, by the simple act of shifting morning assembly in our schools to noon, and the careful designing of school uniforms, a large percentage of students' vitamin D requirements will be met."