- Serving children ‘Happiness Kits’ during COVID-19 pandemic: Shridhar Venkat
- Kits include ration, hygiene items to provide essentials: Shridhar Venkat
- Distributed food kits in states where we don't implement the MDM: Mr Venkat
New Delhi: India observes the month of September as Poshan Maah, or National Nutrition Month, with the aim to increase awareness about the importance of nutrition. Among various government schemes on food and nutrition, Mid-day meals scheme is an important programme that is helping India’s children meet their nutritional needs. The scheme has played a significant role in increasing enrolment and improving attendance of children in the schools, but it has far deeper implications – as it is one of the crucial ways to ensure the nutritional security of children.
As per the government data, in the year 2018-19, MDM scheme served about 9.17 crore children in 11.35 lakh schools across the country. However, the scheme has faced massive challenges when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced and schools and Anganwadis were shut down. NDTV reached out to Mr Shridhar Venkat, CEO, The Akshaya Patra Foundation, India’s biggest organisation which used to feed nearly 18 lakh children every day before COVID-19, to know about how the organisation is helping, coping and continuing its services amid the pandemic.
NDTV: How big a setback has the Mid-Day Meals Scheme faced due to the coronavirus pandemic? What initiatives and efforts have been taken by Akshaya Patra to help overcome these setbacks?
Shridhar Venkat: Over 11.59 crore children are enrolled under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in the country. For many of them, the mid-day meal (MDM) is the first proper meal of the day. With schools closed due to the pandemic, these children do not have access to the nutritious mid-day meal which has a crucial role to play in their health and wellbeing. Furthermore, if the fear of the virus keeps children away from schools even after they reopen, it will leave them without access to mid-day meals for a longer duration, thus making them more vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.
The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to undo the progress that we have made on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Considering that the MDM Scheme is in alignment with SDG 2 – Zero Hunger and SDG 4 – Quality Education, the disruption of the programme due to this pandemic is a big setback for us as a nation.
Children are among the vulnerable populations that are affected the most by the food insecurity triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. With schools closed due to the outbreak, we are utilising our kitchen infrastructure and resources to aid the Government’s efforts to provide relief to these vulnerable populations. We have been serving freshly cooked food and distributing food relief kits with dry ration to individuals and families who were unable to arrange for food for themselves.
We are also distributing Happiness Kits to all our beneficiary children. These kits contain dry ration, dental hygiene kit and stationery with activity books to ensure that their learning process continues at this difficult hour.
NDTV: How did Akshaya Patra distribute Mid-day meals during the COVID-19 lockdown, summer vacations and now when the schools are still shut? How did you reach the children?
Shridhar Venkat: As the implementing partner of the Government’s flagship Mid-Day Meal Programme, we are committed to the responsibility of providing wholesome meals to children. We are working with the Government to provide nutrition support to children in any form that is feasible in the prevailing circumstances. During the summer vacations, we distributed dry ration to families in the form of food relief kits. With the school closures continuing, we are now distributing Happiness kits, as mentioned, that are specifically designed to ensure the health and education of our beneficiary children.
NDTV: What was included in the meals distributed amid the pandemic – both dry and cooked?
Shridhar Venkat: The contents of our food relief kits comprise essentials like rice/flour, tur dal/mung dal, chana, sunflower oil, spices such as turmeric and dhania powder, sambar masala/garam masala, pickle and vegetables with longer shelf-life, such as potatoes and pumpkins. These kits are tailored according to the local palate. For instance, the kits distributed in North India have flour, while the kits distributed in South India have rice. We followed the local palate with freshly cooked meals as well, with our kitchens preparing food items based on the location and serving it at the relief centres.
As for the Happiness Kits designed for beneficiary children, they focus on nutrition, immunity, hygiene and education. Besides dry ration and biscuits, they also have notebooks, pencils, crayons and activity book, to help children to continue with their learning process in these difficult times.
NDTV: What kind of Government support did you receive for the distribution of Mid-day meals?
Shridhar Venkat: The Union Government, State Governments and UT Administrations have always been supportive of Akshaya Patra’s endeavours – be it the MDM Programme or food assistance during disaster relief. Since March, we have been undertaking food relief for those affected by food insecurity due to the pandemic, in 18 states and two union territories in coordination with the respective State Governments, UT Administrations and civic bodies. The necessary permissions and support from the authorities have played a crucial role in ensuring that the challenges are minimal.
NDTV: What were the safety measures undertaken to ensure hygiene in the Akshaya Patra kitchens while cooking Mid-day meals amid the pandemic?
Shridhar Venkat: As a practice, Akshaya Patra kitchens strive to maintain the highest standards of safety and hygiene in all our processes. Due to the ongoing pandemic, we have put in place additional measures to ensure the safety of our food as well as our staff and volunteers. We conducted an orientation on personal hygiene, hand sanitisation and social distancing for all the people involved. Security guards were assigned to man the entrance of the premises and screen employees and volunteers with a handheld infrared thermometer. Everyone, including the volunteers, was asked to use proper respiratory masks during the commute. Inside the premises, everyone was directed to wear hairnets, face masks and gloves at all times, and sanitise their hands with hand sanitiser during entry and every one hour.
NDTV: What were the challenges that the lockdown posed in terms of procurement of ingredients, preparation and distribution?
Shridhar Venkat: The supply chain is a crucial component of our feeding endeavours. In the initial days of our relief operations, there were disruptions in the supply chain due to the containment measures that were imposed to curb the spread of the virus. This posed some challenges for us in terms of procurement of raw materials and non-food essentials. However, necessary permissions from the authorities for the movement of vehicles and our cordial relations with our suppliers helped us continue with our operations.
NDTV: How many instances of COVID-19 did the organisation have to deal with and how did that impact the operations?
Shridhar Venkat: Fortunately, over the last five months, we have functioned without any such occurrences impacting our operations. We have been taking elaborate measures to ensure the overall safety of our initiative and the people involved. Besides adhering to safety protocols, everyone was strictly instructed to report any signs of illness to immediate supervisor and promptly seek medical attention.
NDTV: Given that the pandemic is not going away any time soon, what are some of the changes being implemented to continue the Mid-day meals in these circumstances, what are the challenges you foresee in the near future?
Shridhar Venkat: With the MDM Scheme in its current form in place, schools have been the focal points of nutrition delivery for children, especially children from vulnerable communities. Now with the schools closed and uncertainty about the future, the challenge is to find sustainable, alternate ways to deliver nutritious food to children in any form possible. The Government has already put in place a system to ensure that dry ration is delivered directly to children’s home and, in some cases, turned schools into distribution centres from where parents can collect the food kits whilst adhering to social distancing norms.
In the near future, a big challenge will be to undo the damage caused by the pandemic. We will have to additional steps, such as redesigning MDM and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) menu for higher nutrition value or introducing additional nutritionally dense supplementation for ICDS beneficiaries as well as children with acute malnutrition, to address the food and nutrition insecurity that has compounded due to the pandemic. The current situation also makes a strong case for the fast-tracking of the national breakfast programme as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.
NDTV: What other initiatives were taken by your organisation during the lockdown to help meet children their nutritional needs?
Shridhar Venkat: In the initial phases, we were distributing food relief kits to families from vulnerable communities. Eventually, we designed Happiness Kits especially for our beneficiary children to provide the essential nutrients. These kits contain glucose biscuit packs, ragi flour, peanuts and jaggery as well as immunity-boosting foods, such as turmeric.
NDTV: What were the different ways adopted by you in different states, given the situation of the pandemic varied in each state, to distribute meals?
Shridhar Venkat: We used our kitchen infrastructure in various states where we implement the MDM Programme to cook fresh meals and serve it at the relief feeding centres assigned by the administration. As a need-based solution, we also set up packaging facilities to pack and distribute food relief kits with essential groceries. We distributed food relief kits in states where we do not implement the MDM Programme and thus, don’t have kitchens. In such situations, the kits were packed at the nearest kitchen in the neighbouring state and transported to the areas that needed immediate attention.
NDTV: What do you think is the impact of the pandemic on the eventual target of Poshan Abhiyan of achieving a malnutrition free India by 2022?
Shridhar Venkat: The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic might significantly reverse the progress made on global and national development goals. The impact of this pandemic on health and nutrition, early childhood care, education and social protection is a cause for worry. The prevalence of malnutrition, especially stunting and anaemia had notably declined through strategic interventions of Poshan Abhiyaan. However, the secondary impact of COVID-19 might have reversed some of the recent gains made in reducing malnutrition.
NDTV: How can the Poshan Abhiyan and the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme be put back on track and what role will Akshaya Patra play in this aspect?
Shridhar Venkat: Taking into consideration the impact of COVID-19, Poshan Abhiyan and the MDM Programme need to be strengthened to address the food and nutrition security crisis and malnutrition gaps in children. This can be done by introducing a robust supplementary nutrition programme through modalities like take-home ration, cooked meals, breakfast programme, etc., in addition to the meals entitled in MDM and Poshan Abhiyan. This will help in addressing nutrition deficiencies that have emerged during the pandemic to a significant extent. Akshaya Patra can play a key role in this food and nutrition security supply chain by undertaking the production of these food products in its kitchens and ensuring last-mile delivery to the beneficiaries of the MDM Programme.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.