Akshaya Patra Foundation is the largest non-governmental partner of the largest school lunch program in the world - the Indian mid day meal program. Started with a vision that no child should be deprived of education due to lack of food, the mid day meal program in many cases affords a strong incentive for students to come to school and for parents to seek out education for their children. With several noteworthy innovations to its name, Akshaya Patra has scaled new heights in efficiency and continues to amaze. Our team visited one of their centralized kitchens recently, and have lots to show and tell.
The mid-day meal program was launched by the Government of India in the mid-1960s, and is the largest school-lunch program in the world, feeding 120 million students across the country. The Akshaya Patra Foundation started its own initiative in 2000 to provide mid day meals to 1500 school-going children across 5 schools in Bangalore. In 2006, the two collaborated to exponentially increase their social impact, and to take a big step in helping India meet its Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and achieving universal primary education.
At present, Akshaya Patra Foundation provides freshly cooked and nutritious lunch to more than 1.5 million school-going children in 9,692 government schools across 9 states and 1 Union Territory. The Better India Team recently visited the enormous centralized kitchen at Vasanthapura in Bangalore, and came away thoroughly impressed by the scale of operations, the complexity and the attention to detail.
Many times, the mid-day meal is the only food these children get to eat in the entire day, and it forms one of the biggest incentives for them to come to school. An example of a successful public-private partnership with a large-scale social impact, the Akshaya Patra mid-day meal program has been able to achieve outstanding cost and delivery efficiency by employing innovative technology, superlative management skills and smart engineering. Come take a tour of their Centralized Kitchen with us, so that you can see for yourself how 100,000 meals are prepared. One of the biggest innovations by Akshaya Patra is the construction of gravity flow based kitchens. Such a centralized kitchen is divided into 3 floors, each allocated to a different task. Seven to eight tons of rice, six to seven tons of vegetables and two tons of pulses are cooked each day in just this one kitchen. Each centralized kitchen is capable of cooking between 50,000 and 150,000 meals per day, with the largest situated at Hubli-Dharwad and capable of cooking 185,000 meals daily. The organisation sources its food stocks from local markets, thereby reducing costs associated with transportation and food spoilage, while supporting the local economy. The picture above shows the Rice Master Silo at the centre, which has a capacity to store 270 tons of rice at one time.
Cooking starts at about 3am each day, and it takes about three hours to complete the entire sequence from pre-processing to packing of the cooked food. Technology has been brought in wherever possible to cut down costs, bring in speed and scale up operations. In the photo, the furnace is being fed with briquettes, which are made from bagasse, the fibrous by-product of the sugarcane industry which is being efficiently used here as bio-fuel. The top floor is reserved for Pre-processing. This is where vegetables are chopped, rice and dal (dried lentils) are washed, and all other preparations are done before the actual cooking begins. The vegetables are cleaned in accordance to the three tank water system. First with plain water, then with 50 – 100ppm chlorine water for 10 minutes, and finally again with the plain water. In the photo we can see vegetable chopping machines, each of which can cut more than half a ton of vegetables in an hour. After chopping and washing, the raw materials are dropped down to the second floor of the kitchen via chutes, where they are collected for cooking.
The second floor of the kitchen is where all the cooking takes place. The process employed is steam based cooking to ensure maximum efficiency. In the photo you can see massive rice cookers that take about fifteen minutes to cook 100kg of rice, which can feed 1200 students. The daily requisite amount of rice is transferred from the master silo to day silos from where it is washed and sent to the cooking floor through gravity. We saw almost zero human contact with the food being prepared, ensuring high levels of hygiene. About seven to eight tons of dal was being used in this single kitchen per day. The sambar (a popular South-Indian gravy dish of lentils and vegetables) is also cooked in steam heated cauldrons, which take about two hours to prepare sambar that can serve 6,500 students.
After cooking, the rice is sent down to the packing area, which is located on the ground floor. The rice comes down again through chutes, under which large, air-tight, stainless steel containers are placed to pack the rice and take it to the schools. The emphasis on hygiene is plain to see at all stages, as all cooks and helpers are dressed in clean overalls, with head caps, large hand gloves and gum boots. All employees and guests are given special footwear which they can wear only inside the kitchen. The dal or sambar is also sent to the packing area by gravity, where it is packed into separate containers. The daily meal at Bangalore schools consists of rice, sambar and curd. A sweet treat is included once a week. The items on the mid-day meal menu vary from region to region, and are decided keeping in mind the staple diet of the children it caters to. In the northern part of the country, the rice is substituted by chapattis (Indian bread) as the main source of carbohydrates, along with the typical dal, vegetables and sweets of the region. Local cooks and locally sourced raw materials ensure that the taste of the food is close to what the children are used to eating at their homes.
Curd is provided along with the meal to ensure a well-balanced diet. The curd is sourced directly from the milk co-operatives and distributed into containers for the schools. After the meal is cooked and packed, the cleaning process begins with high-powered hot water jets being forced into the smallest of crevices inside the cutting machines, chutes, boilers, sambar channels, sambar tanks, ladle, etc to sanitize them for the next batch of cooking to begin early the next morning. The packed food is loaded onto custom-designed delivery vans. A complex system has been worked out to optimize routes and it is a daily task to ensure that the right containers are reaching the right schools. There are many variables that need to be factored in like the number of students in each school, whether they require assistance with serving plates and vessels, etcetra.
The vans are ready to leave by 6 am from the centralized kitchen to reach the government schools situated even in the remote areas of rural Bangalore by lunch time. There are 35 routes served by this kitchen which caters to 720 schools and 1.2 Lakh students. There is another centralized kitchen in Bangalore, the oldest one of Akshaya Patra Foundation, located in the premises of the ISKCON temple, which still caters to 600 schools with over 1Lakh students. The arrival of the blue vans is eagerly awaited by the students. We went to a government school in Bangalore served by the Akshaya Patra kitchen, and got to experience first-hand the distribution of the meal and the bright smiles of the students. Once the food was unloaded at the school, the students gathered in the main courtyard to say a prayer of thanks, after which the students were encouraged to get their plates and collect the food. The students then sat together and had their meal, while chatting happily. They were allowed to go for any number of helpings. Akshaya Patra provides meals to these schools as part of the government mid-day meal program. However, the government funding accounts for only about half the cost of the meal. To ensure good quality and unlimited quantity of its meals, Akshaya Patra raises the remaining funds from corporations, individual donors and institutes. Swami kept hovering near our camera. A grade 3 student, he said he loved coming to school and he especially loved the lunch that was provided every day. “My father is a mason, and my mother also helps him at work. They both leave early in the morning, and most days I come to school without having any breakfast. I eagerly look forward to lunch time, as the food always tastes good. My favourite is BisiBeleBath (a dish cooked with rice, lentils and vegetables) and Kesari Bath (a sweet preparation). I miss the lunch on Sunday when we don’t have school.” He must have been in food-heaven that day, because both of these dishes were served, and they were indeed delicious! Where the schools are located in remote areas with limited accessibility, Akshaya Patra has also introduced the concept of decentralised kitchens, where women from the villages are employed as cooks and trained to ensure that food is cooked under hygienic conditions and conforms to nutrition related norms of the mid-day meal programme. Daily supervision is undertaken to ensure that quality and efficiency is maintained. Ten-year-old Sangeetha is a shepherd’s daughter. Her mother, Phumadevi says, “Our family cannot afford to raise three children. I have left the oldest one with her grandmother.” Showing a packet of green chilies and chilly powder she says, “This is all the nutrition I can afford for my two children. We make spicy rotis (fried flat wheat bread) because it kills hunger and we eat less.” She then adds, “Sangeetha and her sister get good nutritious food from Akshaya Patra at the school, which is a great relief for us as parents. She is able to concentrate on her studies because she gets good food.” As long as the mid-day meal programme continues to reach out to children like Sangeetha, the tiny feet will grow strong enough to reach their big dreams. Currently the Foundation runs more than 450 decentralised kitchens in 3 locations – Baran (Rajasthan), Nayagarh (Orissa) and Mathura ( Uttar Pradesh). It’s back to class for these kids, who have had a healthy meal and can now concentrate on their studies without being disturbed by hunger pangs. The smiles on their faces are evidence enough that when the government works with private entities and civil society, the impact that can be achieved is phenomenal. Today, in more than 9000 schools across India, the ringing of school bells and sparkle of their eyes will tell you what the million children are waiting for – just one hot meal!