Akshaya Patra: Feeding the future of a nation

Out of the 8 MDG goals that had been agreed upon, India has performed exceedingly well on just one, namely, achieve universal primary education. In fact, on this one parameter, the progress in India would be among the very best in the world. Achieving universal primary education in a matter of decade, from as low as around61%. And behind this amazing achievement, there is one reason, a program that was launched by the government a decade and more back, namely, the mid-day meal scheme. As a result of which, India today runs the biggest public feeding sustainability101program in the world. Everyday meals are served to around 120 million children in over 1.2 million schools (and centers) across India.

And leading the charge in this program is the Akshaya Patra Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded in 2000. The foundation currently feeds some 1.3 million children everyday, across 22 locations in India. The foundation aims to feed 5 million kids every day by 2020. In fact, it is because of the success of the Mid-day meal scheme in general and Akshaya Patra in particular, that India has been able to spread the education net wider to include the very marginalised of the society. Little wonder, when ex president of US, Bill Clinton came down to India recently, he made it a point to visit an Akshaya Patra center and feed the kids first hand. That is the power of good karma.

To know more, Pratima H interacted with Vinay Kumar, General Manager – Operations at The Akshaya Patra Foundation, to try to bite into the intriguing space of mid-day meals and how innovations can stir a lot in the pots of education and child development by approaching such initiatives with new steam. Some call it the mathematics of scale, some call it the lateral infinites of innovation – Whatever, as long as it works brilliantly like this attempt here. Read on:

Tell us something about how and why this effort started in the first place?

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, was started in the year 2000 to address two of the most immediate challenges of India – hunger and education.  It began its work by providing quality mid-day meals to 1500 children in 5 schools in Bangalore with the understanding that the meal would attract children to schools, after which it would be easier to retain them and focus on their holistic development.  14 years later, the Foundation has expanded its footprint to cover over 1.3 million children in 9 states and 22 locations across India.  In 2012, the Foundation served its billionth meal.

How does it work?

To explain it in short, this is a supply chain that transports cooked food to schools through heat-insulated, dust-free special purpose vehicles. It manages hot freshly cooked meals served on all school working days and caters to local dietary preferences and serves a three-item menu meal. It has got ISO 22000 certification for eleven kitchens. It is not only the recipient of several Akshaya3prestigious awards but is also subject of a Harvard Business School case study already.

Was it easy to press in something radical and did it help to straighten out erstwhile wrinkles?

Traditional model was about setting up of a large kitchen with extremely centralized operations and an unwieldy scale. What we did was all about taking that variable out of the equation by trying a hub-and-spoke model. More so as once the system goes beyond a town, costs shoot up for far-off centres. Such limitations made the case strong for a new format of delivery and thus, the idea of satellite kitchens emerged. These kitchens were not only in proximity to schools but they also made room for just-in-time efficiency, scaling-up factors and cost controls. This worked from two angles logistics-related and fuel-wise both.

Are you happy with the way you have scooped in other indirect impacts too?

Yes, for one, the issue of malnutrition is as core and critical to this initiative as the idea of education or feeding children. We are able to reach out to more children with a doubling-up of scalability. What is an offshoot but heartening to note is that donors felt more inclined once they knew they would be able to control a small kitchen better. It brought them in physical vicinity to the community and geography and gave a new shade to CSR.

Mid-day meals have often been in news for negative reasons – quality issues of extreme levels. Does that affect your approach?

Where we work, the team goes by one succinct motto – I will feed these kids whatever I would feed my kids. We strive in maintaining the highest levels of standards, best practices, audits etc.Akshaya2

In fact, a lot of the quality and hygiene yardstick can be taken back to good scale if the span of control is manageable, which is where a hub-and-spoke model works to our advantage. Since the hub handles procurement, sanitation, resources etc and the spokes focus on cooking and distribution, with every spoke has a roaming supervisor of quality, things become far more manageable and streamlined. We also have a Disaster Recovery mechanism built in for emergency responses.

What next do you envision from here?

We are excited about the use of technology and scientific advancements to achieve scale in order to have real impact.  Its simple approach has been shown to not only prevent malnutrition, but also encourage education, a two-pronged strategy that is bringing a sustainable positive change.

It is important to keep looking beyond the mid-day meal programme like WHO Life Skills trainings for children in schools; providing micro-nutrients along with mid-day meals; enabling nutrition supplements forAnganwadis and lactating mothers in villages and partnerships with the Ministry of Human Resource Development Government of India and respective State Governments to impart training of food safety, quality and hygiene to MDM cook-cum-helpers the states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, Punjab.

We plan to scale up from existing kitchens and to standardize/ maximize capacity while reducing dependencies. We are also thinking of more green-field and brown-field centres and a lot of self-revenue-driven opportunities to wield smartly.

Have you been able to add waste management to the recipe too?

Very much. Scale is again a clincher. A small bio-gas plant is easy to manage. Food waste, both cooking and school-returns, is used to generate back methane for cooking again. There are Akshaya1wastewater treatment methods for taking care of kitchen and housekeeping water outlets to add. We are also evaluating models for solar energy answers wherein they can start early cooking.

Scale is important again?

Smaller kitchens make it easy to use local waste. Every technology can deliver fast TCO, ROI and efficiency required as long as you put it on a handy scale. The food is fresher, more locally palatable and hot once we have moved to smaller kitchens, after all.

Any recommendations to other NGOs having sussed out operational challenges so well?

Do not depend on external consultants, but look for solutions internally and with an innovative mindset. It is crucial to have an internal buy-in for any new idea you embark upon. Your stakeholders, sponsors etc are important but ultimately it comes down to your team to deliver the level being chased. The irony is that organizations are caught up with goals and not value-enhancements instead. That’s a big missing piece in India and unless we loosen up on that quarter-on-quarter mentality, it is hard to sustain innovations, no matter how path-breaking they initially shine as. Keep adapting and correcting yourself.


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