IF YOU WANT the banana, finish the playa (vegetable curry).” Headmistress R Prema’s mealtime refrain works. The 40-odd children at the state-run Tamil higher primary school in Periyar Nagar, DJ Halli, Bengaluru, polish off the food on their plates the moment they hear that a treat awaits them. “Children have no idea what they should be eating. It is up to the teachers to make sure they waste nothing, and those preparing the meal to make them want to eat more,” Prema says. The promise of a healthy and filling midday meal, supplied for the past decade- and-a-half by the Akshaya Patra Foundation, is the sole reason some families send their kids to the school, says Prema. “Many of them are poor eaters, coming from families that cannot afford to cook with vegetables. As they get used to the food here, their tastes evolve and they start looking forward to changes in the menu. Different spices and pulses and special items, like dessert and fruit provided over and above the government-mandated meal, keep them interested.” There are no starveling children at this school, and none who have fallen sick from meals cooked by the roadside or next to an open drain for want of a dedicated kitchen, but a winsome lunch for all is always a work in progress.
Named for Yudhishthira’s pot of plenty, the largest NGO-run midday meal programme in the world, feeding 1.75 million children every day that they are at school, has been dragged into an odious controversy over imposing a Brahminical belief system—a so-called ‘sattvic’ brand of vegetarianism sans garlic and onion—upon beneficiaries. Activists inveighing against the lack of these basic ingredients, which they argue enhance not just the taste but also the absorption of micronutrients, have, however, met their match in Akshaya Patra’s legion of supporters— politicians, business houses, NRIs and middle-class Indians who together contributed Rs 214.35 crore in donations in FY2017- 18 and have stood by the NGO in its hour of uncertainty. The largest partner for midday meals in its home state, the foundation has other allies in the government, including Karnataka Chief Secretary TM Vijay Bhaskar, whose fealty it can count on.
In 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, towards the end of his third and final prime ministerial term, had summoned two of Akshaya Patra’s trustees, former Infosys CFO Mohandas Pai and Abhay Jain, a businessman and an advisor to the Manipal Education and Medical Group, to Delhi to discuss a matter of importance. Late on an August evening, he sent word to them asking if they would be okay with branding the Indian Government’s midday meal programme after their labour of love from Bengaluru— ‘Akshaya Patra’. This was never to be, but to the founding team of Akshaya Patra, an offshoot of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the gesture was a sign that they should feed many more of India’s hungry children. “With the mind of a corporate, the heart of an NGO, and missionary volunteers as its soul, Akshaya Patra is a hybrid experiment in social responsibility,” says CEO Shridhar Venkat, a former vice- president with Webex Communications, Cisco. The foundation chose a centralised kitchen model knowing that the cost of a meal would be about 8-10 per cent higher than that of a meal cooked in a local kitchen. “There were logistical and hygiene challenges with decentralised kitchens and it would have been hard to ensure the kind of quality and consistency that Akshaya Patra stands for today. We did this knowing we were spending more on infrastructure and transport, but it was worth it,” says Abhay Jain. When Jain and Pai met the then Finance Minister Jaswant Singh in 2002 to apply for 35AC income-tax exemption, Singh agreed, with the caveat that they would set up local kitchens as proofs of concept for India’s rural midday programme. “When we set up these kitchens in the tribal villages of Baran, Rajasthan, we found that the women employed to cook and to serve food did not bathe every day. We eventually learned to train locals in Nayagarh, Odisha, and other rural areas where we now have 150 kitchens serving about 15,000 kids. But we don’t want to take up more of these. Not unless we can set up our own training institute. We are uncompromising on quality—not just on onion and garlic,” Jain says. An Akshaya Patra meal may cost marginally more than that served by other NGOs in Karnataka, including Adamya Chetana, which is run by the late Union Minister Ananth Kumar’s family. Yet other NGOs like the Nandi Foundation that ran low-cost midday meal kitchens ran afoul of regulations and had to wind up when worrying reports emerged of the deteriorating quality of food served. The cost of a midday meal at Akshaya Patra is Rs 11.42 (for FY2017-18), out of which Rs 5.63 is the government subsidy and Rs 5.79 is raised through donations. Ninety-two per cent of the funds raised by the foundation directly reach children, after accounting for overheads including the salaries of its 7,000 employees, and the expenses of running an office such as the one where I meet Venkat—an open-plan space without air-conditioning, occupied by nearly 400 young fundraisers, that used to be a textile unit. Not far from the ISKCON temple on Hare Krishna Hill, Rajajinagar, Bengaluru— also the site of Akshaya Patra’s very first kitchen—it is now the headquarters of the foundation.
The largest NGO-run midday meal programme in the world, feeding 1.75 million children every day that they are at school, has been dragged into a controversy over imposing a Brahminical belief system upon beneficiaries
In the hands of seasoned non-profit partners, the midday meal is no longer a common minimum programme. Hygiene standards at Akshaya Patra kitchens are exemplary and the menu is increasingly diversified. Unlike its newer kitchens, where most processes are automated and assisted by gravity, the one at the end of a snaking driveway at the ISKCON temple in Rajajinagar is labour-intensive, employing over 250 men and women to chop, process, pack, clean and deliver food to nearly 100,000 children. At 7.30 am, as you step in, the aroma of majjige huli, a yoghurt-based curry with ash gourd and coconut, and just-steamed rice—about 6.5 tonnes of it, steam-cooked in 11 gigantic stainless steel vats—announces the menu for the day. A monk from the adjoining temple walks in, bearing a thali with the day’s first offering to Lord Krishna, and mixes the prasad into one of the 3,500 containers getting filled and sealed. The drivers of 30-odd trucks stand around chatting, waiting to load the containers on to the steel grids fabricated to prevent spilling inside the vehicle. “Thanks to continuous feedback, we have come a long way from when we started serving midday meals to 1,500 children 19 years ago. Where we once had weekly rotational menus, the menu is now rotated monthly, and local dishes are incorporated as and when we notice menu fatigue setting in,” Venkat says. But while the government allots 100 gms of grain for every child in primary school—150 g for upper primary—children typically consume only 70 g, according to Akshaya Patra CEO Shridhar Venkat. Rights-based organisations say this is a troubling trend, but the foundation has clarified that its meals comply with Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for children and that their calorific value passes the scrutiny of the Central Food Technological Research Institute, beside incorporating turmeric, cumin, greens and other super- ingredients to improve bioaccessibility of nutrients. “Each meal we serve is an unlimited meal. But children only eat so much grain, and this is what we take from the government. This intake is supplemented with a lot of pulses and vegetables,” Venkat says.
To inspire children to eat better, the foundation has successfully piloted millet-based meals at 10 schools in Karnataka—its seven kitchens feed over 452,000 children across the state—and is awaiting the state government’s nod for including millets in the menu once a week. It is also in the process of setting up food development and safety labs and smaller process-oriented kitchens involving local communities. “In small towns in Rajasthan, for instance, people have offered us vacant homes to run kitchens for 5,000-10,000 children. We are toying with the idea, and we may do a pilot soon,” says Abhay Jain. The foundation has taken flak on more than one occasion for large capital outlays—Rs 88 crore on the seven kitchens in Karnataka—and for allegedly undercutting the livelihoods of state-employed midday meal workers. Over 100,000 of them have meanwhile been demanding a hike in wages—from Rs 2,000, they have inched up to Rs 2,700 a month over the past several years.
Ninety-two per cent of the funds raised by the foundation directly reach children, after accounting for overheads including the salaries of its 7,000 employees
The argument for localised cooking, however, cannot be wished away. “Decentralisation gives opportunities to cooks and vendors and boosts the local economy. It also wins the trust of parents, who can see for themselves that their children are being provided nutritious food,” says Jayaprakash Tallam, a trustee of the Sri Sathya Sai Annapoorna Trust, which works with 800 local vendors to serve breakfast to over 200,000 children across 2,600 centres across rural India. “Akshaya Patra has been filling a big gap in the midday meal system and I am sure it will continue to do stellar work. An NGO cannot be faulted for adhering to its principles. We, for one, follow Sathya Sai Baba’s teachings. He believed breakfast to be the most important meal of the day and we have found it to be a game-changer in improving attendance in schools,” Tallam says. The Trust, funded by donations, draws up menus in consultation with nutritionists. In places where it cannot find ways to set up a quality local kitchen, it provides a nutritious mix to supplement milk provided by the government under the Ksheera Bhagya scheme.
For centralised kitchens, the regional palate can be a difficult puzzle to crack. If Tamil-speaking children in a low-income Bengaluru neighbourhood look forward to bisibelebath and rasam, carrot, cabbage and mixed pulse curries are the favourites at an Urdu school nearby. “To a child who is used to eating non-vegetarian food and various masalas, the sambar served by the temple (Akshaya Patra) might seem bland. They have taken our feedback seriously and improved the flavour of the sambar,” says Hazira Rizwan, a teacher at the Urdu lower primary school on Modi Road, DJ Halli. “After feeding about 200 children, we still have some left over to distribute in the neighbourhood. Sometimes I remember the time teachers shared their meagre lunches with children who would come hungry. That time is behind us. Now there is plenty for all, and the community that once wondered if it was a good idea to allow a temple to serve food to Muslim children now feels a sense of kinship—if there is something we don’t like about a meal, we let them know, fully expecting them to fix it.”