For the past 17 years, the Akshaya Patra Foundation has kept with its vision that no child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger. It now plans to expand to more states and touch more lives.
For the past 10 years, Ratna J. Suvarna has been travelling on a boat across the Phalguni/Gurupura river to reach the Akshaya Patra kitchen in a remote village, Tannirbhavi in Mangaluru. She is famous among the local children who ask her what’s on the menu every day. “Pulao is their favourite, and they keep asking me if it’s there for lunch,” she says with a laugh.
Ratna is happy in the belief that these children will be revitalised for another school day because of the food Akshaya Patra makes in its kitchens.
Ratna was struggling financially when her neighbour suggested she work in the Akshaya Patra kitchen to supplement the family income. Her in-laws did not support her, decision but her husband did. She is a kitchen supervisor, who oversees the work of women employees who chop vegetables, prepare food, and clean utensils. She has also inspired her daughter to join the foundation after completing her studies.
She says, “When you can find redemption for yourself through a noble task like working for children, why not?”
The Akshaya Patra Foundation, thus, not only provides wholesome, nutritious meals to school children but also empowers its employees to be financially and socially secure.
Akshaya Patra embarked on a social-driven motive by feeding 1,500 children in Bengaluru in 2001 in government and government-aided schools. Today, it supplies 17 lakh meals in 14,314 schools in 12 states everyday.
The foundation, headquartered in Bengaluru, began its journey in 2001 with the vision, ‘No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger’. Seventeen years down the line, it continues to fight malnutrition and support education of socio-economically deprived children.
Among many other NGOs, it was called upon by the Supreme Court of India to provide testimonies on the mid-day meal mandate.
The Supreme Court mandate stated, “We direct the State Governments/Union Territories to implement the Mid-Day Meal Scheme by providing every child in every Government and Government assisted Primary School with a prepared mid-day meal.”
Akshaya Patra claims to have scaled its beneficiaries from 1,500 to 1.6 million. The foundation claims to have achieved its 500 millionth meal in 2009.
“Since then, the idea of providing fresh, healthy and free meals to school children has been touching new milestones periodically. In 2012, the team celebrated its billionth meal,” informs Madhu Pandit Dasa, the Chairman of the foundation.
While it served two billion meals in 2016, “It continues to drive the incentive of more attendance in school, in its aim of reaching five million school students by 2020,” he adds.
Further, Akshaya Patra became the first Indian non-profit organisation in 2003 to start a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), when it signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Karnataka to implement the Mid-Day Meal Scheme.
“The Government allocates schools based on its data by signing an MoU with the Zilla Panchayat/Municipal Corporation of that particular state. We are referred as the second Party and the Government as the first party. The first party has the right to change the number of children allotted to second party on the basis of performance of the latter,” Madhu says.
Akshaya Patra’s centralised kitchens manage operations that include receiving, storage, preparation, delivery and maintenance, from a single point of control.
These semi-automated kitchens are equipped with cauldrons, trolleys, rice chutes, dal/sambhar tanks, cutting boards, and knives.
“All equipment is sanitised before use to undertake large-scale cooking of 100,000 meals within four hours. The purpose of mechanisation is to achieve the highest levels of hygiene by reducing human contact with the food,” says Madhu.
He believes that when you combine people and technology, any problem can be solved. The customised roti making machine was designed in-house to overcome the challenge of producing rotis manually. It can now prepare 40,000 rotis from 1,200 kg of wheat flour in an hour.
The foundation takes a different approach to reach children in difficult terrains. Currently, a de-centralised model for kitchen works in two difficult locations, Baran (Rajasthan) and Nayagarh (Odisha).
In this model, Akshaya Patra empowers Self-Help Groups’ (SHGs) women to undertake cooking under its guidance and supervision. They are paid Rs 5,600 per month as per the minimum wages in the respective State Government Minimum Wage Notification.
The women supervisors are trained according to the foundations’ standards in cooking, nutrition, and hygiene. These kitchens are temporary setups by the women. The timely delivery of the meals is ensured by the kitchen staff and supervisors.
The Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is followed to ensure safe handling, preparation and delivery of the food. Madhu claims, “We adhere to the 5S of FSMS that is Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardise and Sustain as well as GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) to ensure safe handling, preparation, and delivery of the food.”
“After cooking, the food is packed into stainless steel containers. It is then transported via conveyor belts to be loaded into custom-made food distribution vehicles, and taken to the beneficiary schools. The insulated vehicles keep the food hot even when the distance between the source and destination is more than 40 km. These vehicles are procured from donors' funds or at times, the donors donate a vehicle,” he adds.
The Akshaya Patra delivery vans are GPS-enabled, that can be tracked in real time. This helps en-route optimisation and improve efficiency.”
The Foundation has two Food Safety and Quality Control (FSQC) laboratories; one each in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and Lucknow, and Uttar Pradesh, that comply with international regulations at every stage – from farm to labs. The Akshaya Patra Foundation claims to be ISO 22000:2005 compliant across its ‘eleven’ kitchens.
“The raw materials, as well as the finished products are tested for chemical residue, pathogenic bacteria, allergens, additives, and nutritional content. They are procured from credible vendors and a First-in First-out (FIFO) method is adopted for perishable commodities,” Madhu says.
Once the vendors are chosen, the quality assurance team briefs them on the quality standards. At the warehouse, the operations team follows the FIFO process, he adds.
Madhu explains how the process works with an example. “The potatoes procured are stacked in the warehouse. The first lot is used first to prevent decaying. Simultaneously, more goods coming in and overloading creates a problem. We make sure what came in first is moved out and used. Moreover, there is a minimum for stock levels, but it should be sufficient.”
The Food Corporation of India (FCI) supplies rice. The FCI follows the Public Distribution System for providing food grains. The dal (lentil, pea or various types of bean) and vegetables are outsourced from other vendors.
Madhu says that despite Akshaya Patra being a not-for-profit organisation, it follows a corporate structure and has a Board of Trustees, a Research and Advocacy wing and a Learning and Development wing to groom leaders for different departments.
Hence, the kitchen machines, are procured by floating tenders after being recognised and documented by the procurement team.
Employee referrals, online job portals, social media platforms (such as LinkedIn), and their official website (www.akshayapatra.org), help them hire new professionals. In addition, Madhu says, “people can volunteer to raise funds or spread the word through blogs and other social media platforms.”
A non-profit organisation needs a continuous flow of funds to maintain the ongoing social impact it creates.
“The funds raised help us to provide multi-item menu cooked in state-of-the-art facilities where proper hygiene is given due importance. The Ministry of Finance has granted Akshaya Patra the permission to raise funds from within the country, while the Ministry of Home Affairs permits to collect donations from abroad under the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act (FCRA),” informs Madhu.
“The Foundation is also supported by the CSR wings of several corporate entities. Infosys and the Tata Group were associated with us much before the Companies Act came in force in 2013,” he says.
As Madhu speaks on expansion, ‘sustainability’ will be its key driver in future. Along with serving wholesome meals to children, “we also aim to instill a culture of cleanliness and hygiene among children through new initiatives such as the Swachh Vidyarthi, Swachh Vidyalaya, Swachh Gruha.”
The foundation is also in talks with other state governments to extend its services and looks to the existing partners to provide a template. It also plans to set up new kitchens in the states it has partnered with.