I first learned about Akshaya Patra through my close friend and spokesperson for the foundation, Vithika Agarwal. When Agarwal got married, she asked her friends all over the world to contribute to Akshaya Patra in lieu of wedding gifts. I was touched by her generosity but also intrigued about the organization. What exactly did Akshaya Patra do, for someone to feel such passion for its work?
In July 2008, on a visit to Bangalore, I had the opportunity to meet C.C. Das, Program Director of Akshaya Patra, and discover for myself the amazing work done by the foundation.
“Akshaya patra,” a Sanskrit phrase, literally means a vessel that supplies inexhaustible quantities of food. Founded in 2000, the non-profit organization aims to provide hot and nutritious meals daily to children attending government schools in impoverished neighborhoods. The core belief is that a well-nourished child is able to focus better in school and, in turn, can look forward to a much improved quality of life. Essentially, it is a mid-day meal program that serves to promote literacy amongst the poorest of the poor in India. Research has shown the many benefits of a mid-day meal: Apart from addressing hunger issues, the meals have helped in greater school attendance and imparted a sense of belonging that comes from sitting and eating together. The meals thus contribute to a child’s overall sense of well being that is so important for development.
Also convincing are the numbers based on data collected by A.C. Neilson. The data shows a remarkable jump of 23 percent in school enrollment in first grade after the implementation of the Akshaya Patra meal program in schools in Bangalore, India. In the Baran district of Rajasthan, the enrolment has increased by 41.3 percent in the first grade. Similar increases in school enrollment have been observed in all locations where the program has been implemented. School attendance rates, as well as academic performance, have also jumped up according to A.C. Neilson.
This has provided Akshaya Patra further incentive to spread its wings. The U.S. chapter of Akshaya Patra was founded only two years ago in Stoneham, Mass. Today, it boasts entrepreneur Desh Deshpande as its Chairman and Madhu Sridhar as President and CEO. President-elect Obama has sent in a letter congratulating the foundation for its excellent service. The program was also featured by the Clinton Global Initiative in both 2007 and 2008. The organization runs 100 percent on donations and claims to be the largest mid-day meals program for children in the world.
The Spectacular Kitchens
Naturally, the most vital area of an organization that oversees the preparation of meals on such a large scale would be its kitchens. The Akshaya Patra kitchens are run in two ways—with centralized infrastructure and decentralized infrastructure. Every location has an ingeniously designed kitchen that aims to optimize quality and minimize costs. The food stocks are gathered from local markets with the intention of reducing transportation costs and supporting local economies. The decentralized kitchens are based on a community model and really aim to serve rural areas where building large-scale kitchens is often impossible. Local women are trained to cook using environmentally friendly methods and deliver hygienic and wholesome meals to area schools. This also serves as a means of earning a livelihood for these women. Such kitchens operate in the Baran district of Rajasthan, Nayagarh district of Orissa, and Mathura district in Uttar Pradesh.
The centralized kitchens are equipped with large steel containers for cooking, steam boilers, roti-making machines, vegetable-cutting machines, containers for food delivery, and specially designed vehicles with security personnel to transport and ensure the safe delivery of the food. In Bangalore, I was given an extensive tour of one such facility by the program director, C.C. Das. He informed me that due to extensive mechanization, human handling of the food was minimized. I saw that utmost care was taken in terms of hygiene and cleanliness in the preparation of food.
To begin with, everyone had to wear shoes and head coverings. The cooking area was squeaky clean. The most innovative part of the multi-level kitchen was the engineering involved in meal preparation. Food was cooked in huge steel cauldrons using steam coming through tall pipes, thus efficiently getting the meal ready for thousands of children in the shortest possible time. On any given day, 201,000 children in Bangalore are served lentil soup, cooked vegetables, yogurt, rice, chapathi, and a sweet. Cooking is done between the hours of 6 and 11 a.m. By noon, the delivery vehicles are packed off to the schools. I particularly enjoyed watching tonnes of sambhar being poured out of pipes into large, steel carrier-containers.
Indeed, what makes this program unique is the devotion and love with which meals are prepared and served. I was deeply touched by the selfless work done by the staff. To provide fresh and free meals to thousands of children everyday is not an easy task, but for eight years Akshaya Patra has done it with unmatched drive and dedication. It is commendable that a program that started by feeding 1,500 children in the year 2000 has expanded to feed over 966,000 children. In 2008, the foundation was chosen as a finalist in the American Express Members Project in which 1,190 NGOs from around the world took part. Akshaya Patra was the only Indian foundation that made it to the top five. But even with its successes, the foundation is aware that many more children need to be served. Their work continues.
For those of us who grew up knowing that meals would appear when we were hungry, it is hard to imagine what it is like to be a child and not know how and when your next meal will arrive. For the 966,000 children served by Akshaya Patra in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Orissa, this is often the only meal they will eat on a given day. By 2010, the program aims to reach over a million children across India. Incredibly, it takes only $28 to feed a child in India for an entire year. At present, UNICEF estimates that India has 57 million malnourished children. Akshaya Patra has spearheaded the effort of providing freshly prepared food to all of them. Without continued support, that will be hard to do.
The Akshaya Patra Foundation has been awarded the 2008 India Business Leader Award for Social Enterprise of the Year from CNBC-TV in India. Akshaya Patra has also been recognized by the Limca Book of World Records.
Smita Garg grew addicted to writing while completing her doctoral work in Education. Now she divides her time being a mom to two adorable girls, teaching art to a diverse group of kids at a Bay Area school, and doing something creative everyday.