New Delhi: 29-year-old Diwakar Narayan works as a Software engineer with an MNC – Hinduja Global Solutions in Bengaluru. Talking to NDTV, he recalled how in 2002, when he was in fifth standard, their financial condition was at its worst, and arranging even a single meal wasn’t an easy task for the family of five. Even though both his parents were working minimum wages job, he and his two siblings decided to quit school in order to get odd jobs and help their parents by earning extra money. Diwakar wasn’t happy about it, but he had no other option, he says.
My parents were also in favour of us to take up jobs and help them out. Fortunately, around this time, my school was introduced to Akashya Patra mid-day meal scheme and we told my parents about it saying at least we will all eat one meal at school for free. They were a little skeptical at first but we persuaded them, and Akshaya Patra had interactions with all the parents of the students. It was a life-changing moment, I was only able to complete my education thanks to the mid-day meal. I got the meals from 5th standard to 10th. I went on to finish my higher education and went on to pursue engineering. My brother too runs his own business today.
Diwakar says the taste of the food is something he still remembers as he was so surprised to get delicious meals at school. “No other words to describe the taste of the food other than awesome!” he told NDTV.
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Just like Diwakar, the assurance of a wholesome meal as a part of the Government’s Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme is a reason that prompts millions of children across the country to attend school. By providing them with meal every day, underprivileged children are nourished and motivated to pursue an education for a better future. The Akshaya Patra Foundation has been working as the implementing partner of this nutrition welfare programme for nearly two decades now.
“I eat mid-day meal at school daily. It is delicious and also gives me energy to study at home till dinner is prepared. Dalma and rice is my favourite meal to have at school,” says eighth-grader Avilipisa Dash, an Akshaya Patra mid-day meal beneficiary from Odisha’s Nayagarh District.
“We get brinjal sabzi, dal, khichdi, payasam, and pulao at school; I like payasam a lot!” says third-grader Madhusmita Das, another beneficiary from Assam’s Gondhmow.
Avilipisa and Madhusmita are two of the 17.6 lakh children across India, who benefit from Akshaya Patra Foundation’s mid-day meal programme today, spread across 12 states and two Union Territories.
One shouldn’t underestimate the value and power of hot, nutritious food. As per UNICEF, nutrition is a core pillar of human development and concrete, large-scale programming not only can reduce the burden of undernutrition and deprivation in countries, but also can also advance the progress of nations.
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Akshaya Patra – How It Got Involved With The Mid-Day Meal Programme
The spiritual leader A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada once encountered a simple yet life-changing incident that would later go on to become the core belief of Akshaya Patra. Looking out of a window once, Swami Prabhudeva saw a group of children fighting with stray dogs over scraps of food. This had a profound effect on him and led to the birth of a new determination – no child should go hungry.
Inspired by Swami Prabhudeva’s ideology, IIT alumnus and Padma Shree Awardee Madhu Pandit Dasa founded Akshaya Patra Foundation in 2000, with the vision – ‘no child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.’ A spokesperson from the organisation told NDTV,
Akshaya Patra, means ‘inexhaustible vessel’ in Sanskrit, started the Mid-Day Meal Programme in June 2000 by serving meals to 1,500 children across five government schools in Bengaluru, Karnataka. Soon after, the organisation got the support from industrialist Mohandas Pai, who helped spread our initiative by donating the first vehicle to transport food to the schools and businessman Abhay Jain, who helped us bring in more donors to contribute for the further expansion of the programme.
What started in a temple by feeding 1,500 children in Bengaluru, BBC Global Food Champion award winning NGO today feeds over 17.6 lakh underprivileged kids of 15,668 schools in 45 locations, with collaborations with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), and 12 State governments and is world’s largest NGO-run mid-day meal programme. The spokesperson explained,
In 2001, the mid-day meal became a right for children when the Supreme Court of India directed all State Governments and Union Territories to implement it. By this time, Akshaya Patra was already feeding freshly cooked meals to 23,000 children in Government and Government-aided schools. Having gathered some experience in large-scale cooking for school lunch, we were roped in as an implementing partner for the Government’s Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme.
In 2003, Akshaya Patra became the first public-private partner to implement the mid-day meal scheme when they signed an MoU with the Government of Karnataka, leading to the setup of more kitchens in other locations such as Hubballi, Mysuru, and Mangaluru in Karnataka as well as Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh and Jaipur in Rajasthan. Today, the organisation serves food across 12 states making sure every child sitting in a classroom gets sufficient nutrition.
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The spokesperson says the organisation strives to address the escalating issues of hunger and education in India terming it as matters of national priority, he said,
I feel blessed to have witnessed countless stories of hope and transformation, like Diwakar, over the past two decades. As we continue to work on our commitment of ‘unlimited food for education’, we acknowledge the enormity and scope of work ahead of us.
How Does Akshaya Patra Ensure Quality And Nutrition In Its Food For The Children
When an NGO is feeding more than 17 lakh children every day, it is imperative to ensure that the children get nutritious, healthy as well as hygienic meals. Explaining about how the quality of the food is kept in check, the spokesperson said,
Our kitchens are built giving utmost importance to food safety and hygiene, along with quality and efficiency. In kitchens, measures like maintaining personal hygiene, quality check during procurement of raw materials, quality maintenance during storage of raw materials, quality and safety during cooking, safety measures during transportation and delivery, post-delivery quality check processes like audits and feedbacks are mandatory. We have well-trained cooks and Production Supervisors to manage and supervise the process.
Measures are taken at every stage to ensure highest standards of safety and efficiency are met; raw material is procured from credible vendors and resort to Supplier Quality Management System (SQMS) to ensure that the right and best raw materials are procured. On the other hand, First-in First-out (FIFO) method is adopted for perishable commodities, he said.
Akshaya Patra also serves as a Member of the National Steering-cum-Monitoring Committee (NSMC) for the Mid-Day Meal Programme, to ensure every beneficiary of the government mid-day meal scheme receives quality and hygienic food. About this role, the spokesperson explained,
As a Member of the National Steering-cum-Monitoring Committee for the Mid-Day Meal Programme, Akshaya Patra offers suggestions to the Governments to further develop the MDM Scheme by focusing on areas of programme implementation, impact assessment, monitoring, community engagement, and others. State-of-the-art Food Safety and Quality Control Labs (FSQC Labs) are set up to facilitate the evaluation of products, ranging from raw materials to cooked meals. These labs are equipped with the latest technology and high-precision testing instruments. The refractometer, for instance, helps in testing the total soluble solids, fat purity, adulteration in oils. Similarly, the Duran-make glassware and weighing scales with 0.0001 gm accuracy facilitate utmost accuracy when it comes to physical, chemical, and microbiological analysis of food. We have such labs in Ahmedabad (Gujarat), Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), and Jigani (Karnataka), and one mobile lab in Vizag (Andhra Pradesh).
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The spokesperson also elaborated on how the NGO makes sure the food reaches the children on time,
Delivering the meals to school on time is of the highest priority. We use custom designed vehicles that quickly and safely deliver hot, cooked food to schools according to a strict schedule, with optimal storage and minimal spillage. The cooked food is packed into stainless steel containers and transported via conveyor belts to be loaded into custom made food distribution vehicles, to be delivered to the beneficiary schools. In few locations – methods like logistic charting for route optimisation, GPRS to track the delivery vehicles for safety, and on-time delivery have been adopted in the kitchens.
Akshaya Patra’s Two Kitchen Model
Akshaya Patra has served over 3 billion meals in two decades and in order to keep up with the increasingly high number of meals to be cooked on a daily basis, the organisation has adopted two kitchen-models – Centralised and De-centralised.
When it comes to the centralised kitchens, they are large factory-like semi-automated kitchen units with a capacity to typically cook about 100,000 hygienic meals a day. These kitchens serve a set of schools located around the units.
On the other hand, decentralised kitchens are units which cater to locations that don’t support the construction of a large infrastructure or have improper road connectivity. These kitchens are majorly run by Women Self-Help Groups under the guidance and supervision of Akshaya Patra’s kitchen process and operations module. At present, the foundation cooks food through 45 centralised and 2 decentralised kitchens.
Even though the NGO today successfully feeds over lakhs of children daily, the two-decade-long ride wasn’t an easy one. Talking about some of the challenges faced by the NGO in the initial phase, the spokesperson said,
As an organisation that implements the Mid-Day Meal Scheme on such a large scale, Akshaya Patra was bound to face challenges; but, with channelised efforts, we have also found solutions rather quickly. For instance, it was a challenge for us to reach out to children in remote areas of Baran (Rajasthan) and Nayagarh (Odisha). To tackle this issue, we adopted a decentralised model for kitchens. The aim was to ensure that children in these areas don’t miss out on nutritious meals because of geographical concerns. Similarly, in the kitchens in North India, where roti is the main item, manually preparing them was an arduous task. So, we opted for a customised machine which prepares 40,000 rotis in an hour. Every time there has been a concern, we have found a solution in the form of people or technology.
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Talking about the future of Akshaya Patra, Mr. Dasa shared,
We wish to continue to strive vigorously to empower children through the power of one hot meal. We are determined to enhance the quality, variety, and effectiveness of the mid-day meals through interventions that focus on health and nutrition, and we will continue to innovate to feed many more children across the country.
Ajay Kavishwar, Director – Advocacy & Research told NDTV that the need of the hour is to uphold the children’s Right to education, nation-wide and empower as well as nourish them to have aspirations,
Over the years, we have personally witnessed the transformation our initiative has brought about in the lives of many children, their families, and the community as a whole. It provides great satisfaction to see the positive change, one meal can make in children’s lives. 39 percent of our population are children and we would want them to be transformed as assets of our country. Children are and will always be at the core of all our efforts and we must work together if we are to uphold their right to education and right to aspire, he signed off.