How India feeds 120 million kids a day
India is home to the world's largest free-lunch program giving many schoolchildren across the country what may be their only hot meal for the day.
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The kitchen managed by Das in Vrindivan, a town near Beri, opens at 2 a.m., and by 9 a.m. the food is on trucks headed to 1,500 nearby schools. Mostly this is done by machine, requiring just 65 workers.Skip to next paragraph
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One machine can churn out 40,000 rotis – a circular flat bread – an hour. Workers pack the hot rotis in insulated canisters until a specific weight is reached for each school.
With the help of the kitchens, Akshaya Patra now feeds 1.2 million children a day. An impact assessment by ACNielsen found the program has succeeded in raising school enrollments in various regions, some by as much as 15.3 percent. Attendance also jumped in some places by more than 10 percent.
In 2001, noting Akshaya Patra's success, India's Supreme Court ordered the government to provide hot lunches nationwide – a mandate only widely implemented in recent years.
Still, the needs are vast, and India remains home to about a quarter of the world's hungry poor, according to the UN's World Food Program. The ACNielsen assessment found only marginal improvements in nutrition and scholastic performance.
But is the program making a difference?
Detractors of the midday meal program point out that it focuses government funding on school-age children when the most critical time for malnutrition is age 2 and under. Almost half of all Indian children under 5 years old are stunted due to chronic undernutrition.
Das says that earlier interventions to improve nutrition would make it easier to tackle the problems of hunger. So Akshaya Patra is expanding on the government program to offer meals in nurseries accessible to pregnant mothers.
Many schools not covered by Akshaya Patra hire villagers to cook government rations and have to contend with poor hygiene and rodents. But the centralized kitchen model continues to spread.
"We have full control over the ingredients that go into it, the taste, the safety," says Das, who notes the kitchens meet international food safety standards. And buying in bulk makes it cheap to supplement the government rations with more vegetables and healthier ingredients.
While Akshaya Patra is a secular foundation that serves children of all religions, the group uses its religious ties. The centralized kitchens hire workers from any caste, even those historically considered unclean by upper-caste Hindus.
"This is where our religious background also helps," says Das, himself a Hindu monk. The food is made on religious sites, he says, so parents "stay quiet" about traditional taboos.
Das adds that the standardization of the meals helps instill a greater sense of equality.