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Akshaya Patra: Fighting hunger, one meal a day

Mar 13, 2012

Akshaya Patra's kitchen in Nathwara, Rajasthan is the newest of its high-technology kitchens across India that drive the organisation's massive mid-day meal programme serving 1.3 million children daily in over 8,000 schools across India.

In a country of 1.2 billion people, fast moving towards economic superpower hood, it is a reality check, and a hard one too, that the mover and shaker of things here remains nothing but food. Indeed it is food alone that spawns a giant ripple effect – starting from the levels of education and health to eventually how development in the country finally shapes up. For, you cannot build a country on empty stomachs.

It is a similar line of thought that guides the work of Akshaya Patra Foundation, an NGO in India that has been flag-bearing the cause of hunger amelioration by feeding children in government-run schools across the country.

Commencing in the year 2000, Akshaya Patra (AP) today anchors the world’s largest NGO-run mid day meal programme, feeding 1.3 million children every day in 8,000 schools, across 18 locations in eight states of India.

The meals are cooked in Akshaya Patra-owned kitchens and distributed through their trademark Blue Buses to reach the schools in time for kids to have a hot lunch. The rationale is simple – these schools mostly have students from economically backward sections, and the free meals through the Akshaya Patra programme are usually the only proper ones they get to have in a day.

This is not only an incentive for the kids to come to school; it also has other fringe benefits in terms of better nutrition and health for children, and social parity in an inter-dining classroom set-up.

Model programme

No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger,” is Akshaya Patra’s vision.

Succinct as it sounds, it however takes a lot of work in the background to realise this dream. To start with, it takes a set of 16 kitchens with the latest equipment, and the science of cooking quick huge meals, which form the backbone of the Akshaya Patra effort across India. This is driven by a subsidy-partnership with the Government, and donation support from individuals and corporates, which has kept the programme moving successfully through the 11 years of its operation.

The AP kitchens are modeled in two formats – a centralised format that prepares food for all schools of a particular location in one kitchen only, and a decentralised model in which the cooking activities take place in areas close to the school itself. There are presently 14 centralised and two decentralised kitchens run by the NGO.

The latest addition to this list is the new kitchen in Nathwara tehsil of Rajsamand district in Rajasthan, which was inaugurated in July 2011. Spread across a vast expanse of 32,000 square feet, this kitchen – a centralised one – is serving 32,000 school children across 443 schools in Nathwara from January 2012.

AP was already operating a kitchen in Nathwara out of rented premises since 2007, serving at first 10,000 and then up to 18,000 children across 228 schools. With the setting up of its own infrastructure, it has increased its capacity to reach out to more children – the eventual aim being to serve 75,000 school children when the kitchen operates at full capacity.

Household presence

Serving schools in Nathwara, Akshaya Patra has well known presence in the tehsil. Teachers, students, parents – all know of the 'blue bus' that brings hot lunches to school every day. Their opinion of the meal programme is also fairly uniform – the food is good, healthy and tasty; and a service like this should be extended to as many schools as possible.

Teachers, in particular, are happy since the coming of the Akshaya Patra meals has saved them the effort of cooking the mid day meals in schools, which they had to do earlier. Parents meanwhile are glad their children are getting a healthy meal every day. Akshaya Patra engages with teachers and guardians closely for feedback on the meals and also ensures the stakeholders get to visit the new kitchen to check on all cooking activities.

The new kitchen

The kitchen is an absolute delight to visit! The kitchen in itself is located in a picturesque location overseeing the tehsil’s surrounding hills or magra. Work starts here even before the break of dawn, with 75 workers getting down to their chores in their respective sections.

As one enters the huge vastness of space, one is but instantly captivated by how remarkably clean it is! Newly installed larger-than-life bread-making machines have their steel glistening in the early morning sun – its rays filtering in through the vents near the ceiling. At one side of the kitchen, a flour-kneading machine makes dough out of 75 kgs of wheat flour (atta) in nine minutes!


Video: Akshaya Patra's Nathwara kitchen: Fighting hunger, one meal a day

A cleaning maid is continuously sweeping and mopping the floor, doing double, triple and more rounds of cleaning. Every time a mound of kneaded atta is transported from the kneading machine to the bread/roti-maker, she sweeps away any traces of flour that may have sprinkled on the floor.

The kneaded atta then makes its way through the huge roti-making machine, firstly getting flattened in a huge sheet, then being cut in equal round shapes, and finally mounting on the burner (chulha) to come out as soft and puffy rotis.

A group of women, on the other side, await the rotis as they are brought to their table; they swiftly apply oil on them and send them to be packed into tiffin boxes lined up near the entrance.  Every tiffin box is weighed before it is sent; it is supposed to have two or three rotis for every child in the school where it reaches. 

At another side of the kitchen, rice and curry are cooked. Today, it is vegetable pulav and mixed vegetable curry – a dish that children love. The rice, cooked in a huge cauldron, is almost ready, as the workers pour it out into another vessel to pack into tiffins. The fragrance of the fresh spices and hot rice make a heady aroma – enough to induce hunger in this reporter.

Next to the rice cauldron, is the curry which is being stirred by a huge ladle. A tap at the bottom pours out the curry into another container, where it is garnished with coriander and some masala, ready to be packed into tiffins, piping hot.

The 6-sigma standard adhered to by the AP kitchens means the food gets packed at a specific temperature (not less than 90 degrees Celsius) and is delivered to the children while it is still hot (not less than 60 degrees Celsius). Food is packed ready by 9 am in the morning and reaches schools around 11 am. The packaging in the containers ensures the food stays warm up to six hours, so that the children get a hot meal when they sit down for lunch at mid day.

It is definitely no child’s play to get such food for every child in the 443 schools that AP serves in the vicinity of the Nathwara kitchen. But the streamlined processes in the organisation mean that every kitchen – functioning independently – is able to conduct its activities with the highest quality delivery possible.

Pawan, Kitchen In-charge at Akshaya Patra, has been with the organisation since 2007. His day starts early at five to ensure that food preparation in the kitchen is on at 6:15 am. He is supported by two assistants in the roti and rice-curry sections. “The kitchen is thoroughly cleaned three times a day at 9 am, 1 pm and 3 pm,” shares Pawan.

“Every worker has to take a bath before he/she comes to the kitchen. The experience of working at Akshaya Patra is very good. In other places, we get salary. But here we get a job satisfaction that is greater than the salary we get,” he adds.

The Nathwara kitchen presently serves 25,000 rotis, 600 kgs of rice, 270-280 kgs of dal, and 1100 kgs of vegetables on a daily basis. Functioning in its full capacity, the kitchen will be able to churn out 40,000 rotis per hour. The food, packed in appropriate tiffins, is then loaded onto specially designed vehicles – the Blue Bus – and sent to schools where children eagerly await the best meal of the day. 

"This is the best meal of the day"

Gopal&Monica.jpg

It is near lunch time at the Ramadevi Malchand Bagri Upper Primary School in Fauz, Nathwara, and Monica Kumawat and Gopal Verma, fourth standard students here, are just over with a Hindi test which they share, went off well.

Gopal wants to become a doctor when he grows up, while Monica wants to be a “madam” (a teacher). They are now waiting for the Blue Bus to bring them their lunch. They love the AP food that comes to school. “Sometimes we get roti, sometimes thulli, sometimes rice, khichdi, karhi, vegetables, dal, and all,” says Gopal, listing the AP weekly menu in one breath. But both like rice better than roti.

When the food arrives, the children line up with plates, wash their hands and sit in a neat row. The served food is still steaming hot a good four hours after it was packed and loaded in the Blue Bus. The children chant the Gayatri Mantra and commence their lunch. The satisfaction in the faces is palpable. Food is cleaned off quick from the plates and the kids then head off to wash their own dishes.

Rice and karhi form the most favorite menu for the children in almost every school. “The food is good,” is the common exclamation, whether it is children at the Primary School in Parawal or the Upper Primary School in Ulpura Magra or tiny tots at the Nada Bhil Basti School in Bogal. 

Children look forward to school

Udaipur and Nathwara

At the Nada Bhil Basti, Gota Lal is home with his five children. He has eight children in all. His three elder sons, one of them married, are away working in the city. His two daughters, Kailasi, who is also married, and Ghisi have dropped out of school. And his youngest kids – Mahender, Sushila and Rahul – are just starting school. He is a cobbler (mochi) by profession, and is barely able to make ends meet, coming in the BPL (Below Poverty Line) category defined by the Government. Yet he is happy that his younger children are at least going to school.

“With the meals they get daily, my kids are now more particular about going to school, even without me asking them to,” he says. “If food is not provided, maybe the kids will not be so keen on going to school,” he adds.

“Every day is festival day”

Gota Lal’s sentiments find echo in a comment by Sankar Tripathi, Head Master of Ulpura Magra Upper Primary School, who states, “Every day is festival day for the kids at school. The children get jeera rice, kadi, and pulav, something they don’t get at home. These are delicacies cooked only on festivals. No wonder the children look forward to the blue bus every day.”

Video: School teachers speak about Akshaya Patra's meal programme

He adds, “We provide feedback on the meals to Akshaya Patra on a regular basis, and have noted that there has always been good improvement in the food, prompt to our suggestion.”

“Since the coming of the Akshaya Patra meals in school, we have noted improvement in the enrollment of children, and in their health status,” says Anita Sen, Head Teacher at the Bhopa ki Bagal Primary School, Mullela.

"Kids across castes and communities, eating together, present a beautiful picture of harmony."

Adding another perspective, her co-teacher, Krishna Gopal Gujar mentions, “Children of all castes and religions eat together at school. There is no bhed-bhaav (segregation) on who serves food. Children eat from the same plate, and drink water from the same tank. This is a huge achievement. While their parents may still practice segregation (considering the region is fairly conscious of caste-hierarchies), the unity in kids presents a beautiful picture of harmony.”

Another aspect on which all teachers are unanimous is that the coming of AP food has relieved them of much work. The rationing, accounts, procurement and cooking they had to do earlier are now taken care of. “The food comes and we unload it, and the work is done for the day,” says P C Sanadhya, teacher at the Ramadevi Malchand Bagri Upper Primary School.

Fringe benefits

It is interesting how one meal, served with care, can go a long way in bringing about pleasant changes, more than expected. The increase in student enrollment is a case in point.

The region now has 100% school enrollment, this shares credits not only with RTE but also the Akshaya Patra meals’ contribution. Narendra Singh Jhala, route supervisor with Akshaya Patra shares, “Over the five years that I have been with Akshaya Patra, I have seen the number of schools increasing, and the number of children increasing.” He further says, “For a student who gets food in school, we see that his or her siblings also enroll in school. The incentive of a guaranteed meal thus effectively works for student enrolment.”

There are other benefits as well; largely in promotion of social unity through inter-dining at school, and in achievement of better nutrition and learning outcomes for the children. This sets off a happy chain of parents, children and their teachers, all of who could not be more welcoming of this one meal a day, served with care and hope.

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