Did you know that the world’s largest NGO-run midday meal programme serves wholesome school lunches to over 1.6 million children across 12 states in India?
This gargantuan achievement belongs to the Akshaya Patra Foundation. RJ Beula and RJ Padma Priya visited the NGO offices recently and got an in-depth view into the operations that power these meals.
When in conversation with Mr. Sridhar Venkat, CEO of the foundation, it was revealed that the one ingredient behind the achievements of Akshaya Patra is dedication. “They also revel hard work and a sense of watching children bloom and grow into productive citizens of our country; all this starting with nutrition course,” he said.
Venkat is from Nagpur and grew up in a lower middle-class family. But the values he was exposed to were strong, holding him in good stead as he studied engineering with a Masters in management, worked in the corporate sector for 18 years, became vice president at CISCO-Webex Communication, stayed abroad as the CEO for a software services firm and gave it up to return to India and become the MD of another company. He had by then begun to simultaneously work with Akshaya Patra (located at Chord road, Bengaluru). He was inspired by the words of the erstwhile-president of Akshaya Patra, Madupandit Das – “Why are you building empires for others? Work for the children of India and Krishna’s children instead.” So, Venkat quit his corporate career for good and has been working with Akshaya Patra for the past 12 years.
About 8 years ago, the then-president of the Congressional Hunger Center had visited the NGO and declared it to be the world’s largest food empowerment scheme.
“This meal programme was started by missionaries of ISKCON Bangalore – Sri Chanchalapathi Dasa, Sri Madhu Pandit Dasa, Mohandas Pai and Abhay Jain,” Venkat mentions in the interview. “Their focus is ‘service’ and they never thought about coverage. In the mid-1970s, Srila Prabhupada was on a visit to Kolkata during a festival when he heard the cries of children. He saw children fighting for leftover food with stray dogs. He thought to himself, “The supreme father’s children should not go hungry.” So, he decided to start a meal programme. This is a secular meal programme, as hunger knows no religion.”
The specifics relating to the Akshaya Patra kitchen are fascinating to know about. It is the first centralised kitchen infrastructure (of 100,000 capacity) built for a non-profit organisation in the country. It can handle 10 tonnes of grain, 5 tonnes of vegetables, 5 tonnes of pulses, and has industrial boilers with steam to cook the rice in. A special cauldron is capable of cooking 1,200 liters of dal at one go (in 2 hours!), and 100 kilos of rice in one go for 1,000 kids. This set-up is inexpensive but produces good quality products. This social innovation combines missionary spirit with professionalism. Close to 6,000 people work in the organisatio, and 2.25 lakh meals are served in Bengaluru every day. The cost of a single meal is INR 10, of which INR 6 are paid by the Government and INR 4 by Akshaya Patra.
Most of the food is cooked using local produce sourced from places close to the location of the kitchen; only some things like the dal are centralised. Akshaya Patra supplied 300 million meals last year and also celebrated its 2 billionth meal mark!
“Every child is special,” says Venkat. “We provide no packaged meals. It is all fresh, motherly food. The menu changes every day, a dessert is served once a week, and it is all unlimited.”
Out of compassion and empathy for hungry kids, the meals are served right on time every day. An incident highlights the NGOs commitment in this respect. At a school in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, there is a school where the children study under a tree. The children know this – the teachers may or may not come, but the meal will come every day. “So, the kids come in to school regularly,” Venkat mentions. They are called ‘buses of hope’. 750 such vehicles run across the country, covering 1.6 million children within 6 to 7 hours each day.
At the kitchen, the work of cutting vegetables runs through the night and the boilers come alive at 3am or 4am. “Where ever you are, bring positive change in the lives of others,” Venkat says. “Dream big and be sincere and God will support you.”
In the second segment of the interview, RJ Padma Priya speaks to children from Government schools who consume these daily meals, starting with a prayer song. “We have been getting this food for the past 6-7 years. These are good, healthy and tasty meals, provided three times of the day. We all await them with excitement as every day the food is different.”
The third segment of the interview focuses on the remarkable Akshaya Patra Kitchen operations. RJ Padma Priya speaks to Mr. Vinay, the Operations Manager at Akshaya Patra about the vegetables and the masalas, the cooking methods, the infrastructure, and how they make sure that the food is cooked on time. The recipe design focuses on nutrition, making sure that essential carbohydrates and proteins are always included.
Every kitchen needs 250 to 300 employees to function. Space management for storage of ingredients, food processing and packing is essential. Fuel for running the boilers (mainly steam which comes from briquettes made from agricultural wastes) is another critical requirement. No fossil fuels like petrol are used for this purpose. Gravity flow is used to draw materials from one unit to another.
The biggest challenges concern maintenance, hygiene, food safety, cleaning of vessels and cauldrons, human resource management, and transportation. There are mechanisms in place to protect food from rodent attacks. The workers are provided training for the work as well.
Two kitchens have been set up in Bengaluru – at Rajajinagar and Vasantpura. A new one is being built in Jigni.
A new project that is being planned is ‘Ksheerabhagya’. This will provide morning milk to the kids thrice a week, supplied from 25-26 kitchens located across India.
Written by Vybhavi Adiga.