In a country with the largest number of malnourished children in the world, the need of the hour is not small steps but giant leaps. And that giant leap is exactly what a Bengaluru-based NGO aspires to take, aiming to feed 50 lakh (five million) children every day in schools across the nation by 2020.
Only such giant leaps can make a difference, feels the management of The Akshay Patra Foundation which runs what it claims is the world’s largest school lunch programme to end child hunger and to support education.
For this foundation, feeding 50 lakh school students is not a distant pipe-dream but an attainable challenge as it already feeds 19 lakh (1.9 million) students every school day.
In its over 40 kitchens across 12 states in India — with most centralised kitchens having the capacity to cook up to 100,000 meals — around 7,000 people from different castes and creed work together to serve hot cooked meals to students, says Ratnagada Govind Das, President of the Rajasthan unit of The Akshaya Patra Foundation.
Home to over 46 million malnourished children as per the Global Nutrition Report 2018, India ranks 103 among 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index.
The Global Hunger Index 2018 report says that at least one in five Indian children under the age of five is wasted (having extremely low weight for their height), reflecting acute under-nutrition. The only country with a higher prevalence of child wasting is the war-torn nation of South Sudan.
Das says the foundation hires people from all castes and religions to work under one roof with a single aim so as to ensure that no child in India is deprived of education because of hunger.
Mukesh Mali, who has been working in one of the Akshay Patra kitchens in Rajasthan for the last five years, says, “We ensure that cleanliness and hygiene standards are followed in our kitchen. Me and my other co-workers love cooking as it brings in a sense of satisfaction that we satiate the hunger of so many kids. The food from this Jaipur kitchen goes to distant places.”
Just as hunger doesn’t discriminate, one can also find true diversity not only in The Akshaya Patra Foundation’s (TAPF) kitchens where people from different castes and religions cook prasadam (a devotional food offering made to a god that is later shared among devotees) together, but also in students who come from different castes and religions and receive that prasadam in the form of mid-day meals.
Sharing the reason why this food is called prasadam, Das says that after being cooked, it is first served to the Lord and then it reaches schools.
B.D. Kumawat, administration head in Ajmera’s Tikamchand School where students’ mid-day meal comes from TAPF, says most students in the school come from the Katchhi Basti (an underprivileged neighbourhood) nearby.
“They come from poor backgrounds and hence this food being served here is like a blessing to them. The quality and the taste is good. Hence they love coming to schools. In fact, the school attendance has gone up after the distribution of this meal,” he says.
Started in the year 2000 in Bengaluru, TAPF’s mid-day meal scheme is the largest programme to serve meals in schools in India. In Rajasthan alone it feeds over two lakh children from its 11 kitchens.
“The organisation is looking forward to the goal of feeding 50 lakh children each day by 2020,” Das says.
He adds that the biggest challenge in cooking for millions is maintaining the quality and delivering the food without it going bad.
If any lapse is detected, it becomes a big challenge to immediately stop the same lot of food from getting distributed and evaluating the reason for the problem and making sure it doesn’t happen again.
Das says the parents of the beneficiary students are also very happy with the programme.
“As we are mainly working on feeding underprivileged kids, their parents feel relieved that at least this one nutritious meal is being served to their children for which they don’t have to worry,” he says.
Divya Jain, regional quality head at Akshay Patra, says the foundation ensures that the food suffices the dietary requirements of the students.
“We follow the ISO 22000 standard that is the highest standard in food safety and hygiene. The food we cook here is precisely made and the menu is well-designed too. It is least hand-handled and comes with nice nutritional value. Kids love this meal as the taste is good,” he says.
“We serve a three-course menu, including chapati, pulses, vegetables, rice and soups,” he adds.
Das says it also makes parents push their children to attend school regularly and to study. “As per a survey, it has been seen that the attendance in these government schools where they get mid-day meals has increased tremendously,” Das adds.
“Hunger, malnutrition, ill-health and gender inequality are constraints to attaining an education. Through this mid-day meal programme, we have tried to tackle these problems. Further, these meals provide a sociable environment where children from different backgrounds interact and break barriers of the caste system,” he says.
(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Archana Sharma can be contacted at [email protected])