World’s Largest School Lunch Program

On any given school day, one industrial kitchen in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, is astir well before dawn. In this food factory run by the Akshaya Patra Foundation, workers prepare hot lunches for over one hundred thousand children in the city’s state-aided schools. Inside the plant the preparation proceeds like clockwork. By seven a.m. special containers of a paella-like tomato rice are loaded onto the waiting food trucks. I savor a plateful for breakfast before boarding one of these vehicles. Despite the city’s chaotic rush-hour traffic, the fleet has to deliver the food to nearly five hundred schools before noon. It would be a pity if any of the trucks arrived late. For many of these school kids, this simple lunch will be their only meal of the day.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation takes its name from a mythological vessel, an inexhaustible source of food in one of India’s great epics. Program Director Chitranga Chaitanya Dasa explains that the project drew inspiration from the Hindu tradition of offering devotees prasadam—food that has first been presented to the deity: “We wanted to reach out to those who didn’t visit temples daily.” A decade ago, when Dasa and fellow missionaries from the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) temple in Bangalore were discussing ways to increase the distribution of temple food, they became aware of a pressing social problem. Although government schools provide free education, poor students drop out because they are too hungry to focus on lessons. The practitioners of the “kitchen religion” (as Iskcon’s brand of spirituality is sometimes called in the United States) decided to use their considerable culinary expertise to solve this nourishment problem. In 2000 they began serving a rotating menu of dietician-approved vegetarian lunches in five schools in the vicinity of the temple. When word got out, headmasters from far-flung suburbs began lining up to request that their schools also be considered for the project’s pilot run. “That gave us an inkling of the demand,” says Dasa.

Clearly, this lunch program was destined to outgrow the temple kitchen. To remove any religious overtones, Akshaya Patra registered itself as a secular and independent charitable foundation in 2001. Its mission statement is straightforward: “No school child in India should be deprived of education because of hunger.” The foundation partners with state governments nationwide and also enjoys corporate sponsorship. Today the program feeds over one million children in 7,500 government schools in India, making it the largest school lunch program in the world run by a non-governmental organization.

Given these numbers, mechanizing the food preparation makes sense in urban centers (in rural areas the meals are prepared in smaller kitchens by local groups). Akshaya Patra’s model multistory kitchen in Bangalore is based on the principle of gravity flow. The South Indian staple, rice, supplied by government subsidy, is first picked clean of debris, including stones, mud, and husks. A magnetic sieve separates iron nails and scrap metal from the grains. The rice, together with lentils, then travels through ducts to drop directly into waiting vessels one floor below—steel cauldrons designed for steam cooking. Vegetables, processed by an array of high-speed cutting machines, have a shorter journey to make. Once all the prepped ingredients have made their way into the pot, the cooks stir in spice mixes with large, oar-like paddles. Automation frees the workers from the drudgery of prep-work, cleaning, and carrying materials around the huge kitchen. An additional advantage is sanitation control. Economies of scale keep the cost of this midday meal low; each lunch served by Akshaya Patra averages about ten cents. Program sponsors are pleased that their contribution goes further than those in similar food-aid programs.

Dasa notes that some observers do not understand all the care that goes into preparing this daily hot lunch, believing that the poor should eat whatever they are given. But making this meal both nourishing and tasty is a priority for Akshaya Patra. “If we give them the same items all the time, they will get bored,” explains Operations Manager Nandan Nandana Dasa. At the same time, the children show a preference for certain items, which ideally will not be removed from the menu. At one school I visited I was surprised to find that the protein-rich garbanzo curry had few takers. The kids were evidently expecting yogurt –for them a meal seems incomplete without this dairy product made from buffalo milk. Feedback in the lunch lines is instantaneous. When the students like a new item on the menu, they are generous with their praise. And because the teachers send daily reports back to the kitchen, the children’s preferences are duly noted.

Impact studies carried out by regional medical schools reveals the effectiveness of the meal plan. Cases of anemia and malnutrition have been drastically reduced in some schools. Surveys and analyses of records by the Department of Education reveal other encouraging statistics. Student enrollment, particularly of girls, has gone up in some regions, and fewer children drop out of school now. A vast majority of teachers polled—92 percent—agree that the children have become more attentive in the classroom, and academic performance has improved. Even the most brilliant student cannot concentrate on an empty stomach, one school principal told me. “Some of the students have become more mischievous now,” she conceded with a smile. To me, this off-the-cuff remark is testimony to the effectiveness of the program as much as the impact studies.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation aims to scale up the program to serve five million children by 2020.