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Madhu Pandit Dasa: ‘The number one impact of midday meals is the elimination of classroom hunger’

‘Midday meals for children are a national investment’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Dec. 07, 2016
Updated: Aug. 21, 2018

Madhu Pandit Dasa oversees the world’s biggest midday meal programme. He is chairman of the Akshaya Patra Foundation. The figures are stupendous. Every day, rain or shine, freshly prepared midday meals are delivered to 1.6 million children from poor families studying in 13,210 government schools across 11 states. Not only is the meal nutritious and hygienic, it has been adapted to the culinary preferences of children in north and south India.

Akshaya Patra began sending out meals in 2000, before the landmark Supreme Court order of November 2001 in the Right to Food case mandated that all government and government-aided schools serve midday meals to children.

The Akshaya Patra midday meal programme is a massive, efficiently run operation. It is undoubtedly a lesson in what commitment and leadership can achieve and is the subject of business school case studies.

Shri Dasa is a devout follower of Shri Prabhupada and heads ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in Bengaluru. He also has a B.Tech degree in civil engineering from IIT-Mumbai. He has used both technology and compassion to put in place the midday meal programme.

Shri Dasa spoke to Civil Society on Akshaya Patra’s amazing growth and how he hopes to take the programme further.

Tell us how you began the Akshaya Patra midday meal programme in government schools?

The government spends crores building infrastructure, paying teacher salaries and so on in government schools. But children are sitting hungry in the classroom. That’s why educating the children, giving them knowledge won’t be effective.

So in 2000 we thought of starting a midday meal programme for 1,500 children in five government schools. The response was tremendous. Mind you, at that time the government midday meal scheme hadn’t started.

We just wanted to do a few hundred schools. But within two months we were flooded with applications for 100,000 children. That fat file of applications would stare at me every day I got to office. I didn’t know what to do. Providing midday meals is a recurring cost and a big commitment.

One day I came across an anecdote of our leader, Swami Prabhupada. He had seen some street children fighting with dogs for remnants of food. It moved him deeply. He called all his leaders and said no one within a 10-mile radius of the ISKCON temple should go hungry. I was very inspired by this direction of Shri Prabhupada. I thought let me go ahead. God will help us. So I picked up that file and decided to scale up the midday meal programme.

We began with 1,500 children. Our midday meal programme expanded to 150,000 children before the government midday meal scheme started. 

How long did it take to get to 150,000 children?

It took till 2003. We found it very tough because providing midday meals is a recurring cost and most of our donors were individuals. In those days the corporate sector wasn’t confident about giving money. They got involved in 2008. Somehow, with God’s grace, we tided it over.

The government midday meal scheme, when it started, was a big boost for us. It helped us expand. Still, the government covers only 60 percent of our cost. We collect the remaining 40 percent from donors. The second boost for us was the CSR policy in 2008. We could then get money from companies for setting up kitchens.

Midday meals are a practical intervention and add value to the taxpayer’s money. For many children this is the only meal in the whole day.

It’s a great long-term investment in the nation.

Exactly. Usually, people talk about our population being a burden but we are converting it into an asset. If these children are fed and educated they will be very productive for themselves and for the country.

Your kitchen is almost like a factory. What innovations did you introduce and how critical were they for expanding your programme?

The moment we saw all those requests for our midday meal we realised we could only do this through technology. The basic method we used was steam cooking. Our first kitchen was in south India so the main item was rice. We had huge stainless steel cauldrons and steam boilers. Steam was sent through the rice and the cauldron would cook rice for 500 children in 10 minutes. We used to have many shifts.

Then we had bigger cauldrons of 1,400 litre capacity for sambar. We brought in the best people from the industry in those days. But we found that what they were doing was not that cost-effective. They weren’t dealing with huge numbers.

They were using stainless steel cauldrons that were double jacketed which means steam doesn’t enter the food. This is fine if you are cooking for smaller numbers. We tried it out and found it inefficient for our purpose. Then we thought, why not purify the water and let the steam touch the rice. We use the single wall method and send the steam directly to the food. We found this method 50 percent more efficient. The food cooked faster. We learnt as we went along.

When we went to north India we confronted another challenge. With the same machinery we set up a rice and sambar kitchen. The schools were very happy for one week. After that they were dissatisfied. They said, We want chapattis.

 In Vrindavan we were feeding 100,000 children. We thought, my God, how do we make 200,000 chapattis?

So our devotees went to Punjab to find out. We finally found a sardarji who said he would make them. The military did have a chapatti making machine but it made only 2,000 chapattis in one hour. I needed 20,000 chapattis an hour. But see how innovative our people are. Our sardarji was not even an engineer. We gave him Rs 5 lakh. The first machine that was invented produced 10,000 chapattis per hour. It wasn’t very professional and our sardarji had to camp in the kitchen. But he learnt how to improve it. Nowhere was serving of meals ever stopped. If something went wrong it was quickly repaired. We kept making improvements on the machine. Finally, after a year we produced a machine that makes 40,000 chapattis per hour.

Wow. Is that what you produce?

Yes, that is what is going on in our north Indian kitchens. It is amazing. Of course, if you ask us to make puris we can’t. We don’t know how to cook them. 

So is rice completely out in north India?

No, we give pulao for two days and dal and some days we also give a sweet. The other challenge was to alter the menu every day. Even in south India the sambar is altered. We have different types of masalas. Every day we use different masalas and vegetables. If the vegetables and masalas are different, the taste is different.

So the children have something to look forward to?

Yes, and we get continuous feedback from schools. The children are raving about the food we give them in every part of India.

Does the menu change every day?

The overall menu is basically the same. In south India we give sambar-rice and bise bele baath. In the north we give chapattis, dal and vegetables. During festivals we are particular about sending sweets.

What is the calorific value of a meal that you serve?

As per government rules the midday meal for children in lower primary is 450 calories and for upper primary it is 700 calories. Protein content for children in lower primary is 12 gm and for upper primary it is 20 gm per child.

The menu is designed so that children automatically get their daily intake of fresh vegetables, dairy products, cereals, legumes and oil which is imperative for increasing nutritional levels. We also make a conscious effort to modify the menu on a timely basis so that there is variety. The menu is customised for north India and south India. We get continuous feedback.

Have you assessed the impact of midday meals in government schools?

Number one is elimination of classroom hunger. We don’t just give children one serving. They can eat as much as they want. According to headmasters the food quantity is sufficient and it has significantly helped in countering classroom hunger.

The second is social equity. This has been maintained almost universally according to government officials and headmasters. Children eat together regardless of caste, religion or economic class in all states. Parents too did not object. So the midday meal really promotes social equity at childhood stage.

Of course in the beginning there was some inequity. So we used to stress that the children sit in a line. Sometimes we would ask older students to serve the food and a child would say if he serves the food I don’t want to take it. We educated the teachers and emphasised that they must all sit together and eat.

Third is nutrition and health. The food served is healthy and hygienic. Almost all nutritional experts who have evaluated the meal feel that the midday meals we provide have the right nutrition and calorific content. They recommended that this programme should continue.

The next impact is on enrolment, retention and attendance which were highly irregular across all states. During interviews most headmasters mentioned that enrolment and attendance had increased significantly and so did government officials. 

Are you planning to introduce breakfast?

We are open to it. We are willing to expand provided we get adequate funding from donors, stakeholders and the government. We can do it. We have invested in setting up kitchens. They are not fully utilised. It’s not difficult for me to serve idlis in the morning. I have steam cookers. We have to just start three hours before. Now we start at 4 am. If I start cooking at 2 am I can make a set of idlis. I only have to order more machines for idli-making and we can serve breakfast also. There are logistic issues but those can be worked out. 

The meal has to reach hot. We don’t have thoroughly insulated vehicles but heat can be retained for four hours.

How much does the midday meal cost per child?

By the end of March 2016 our national average per meal was Rs 9.51. The government subsidy meets  Rs 5.7 per meal. The balance is met by donations, corporate funding and so on. There is capital cost expenditure for which we don’t get anything from the government.

Besides subsidy, the government guarantees timely procurement of foodgrain which is very good.  Foodgrain is delivered to us. The commitment of the government has to be commended along with our donors and funders.

How replicable is your model?

Akshaya Patra has two models. One is the centralised kitchen model. The second is the decentralised model. We are feeding 20,000 children in Baran district of Rajasthan. It was a big challenge because vehicles can’t deliver meals there. Only two-wheelers can go. As a result, the centralised kitchen model doesn’t work.

So we engaged local women for one village. We rented a small house and employed five or six women to cook. We trained them on hygiene. Every week a person goes on a two-wheeler and delivers all the provisions to them. The women not only cook, they walk to the school and deliver the food in containers. Each school has about 50 to 100 children. We are doing this decentralised model in Nayagarh in Odisha and in villages in the interiors of Vrindavan. This model is scalable.

Our centralised kitchen model can only be scaled up in urban areas.

Can the government midday meal scheme do this?

It is difficult. They have one cook in the school and the headmaster has to procure the provisions, get cooking gas and so on. Will he manage the school or focus on the midday meal? There is a problem with the government model. Everybody cribs. You lose study time and administration time. We employ women as cooks. They are paid Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000. In the government midday meal scheme the cooks are casual labourers.

Does the cost per child change in a rural area?

The cost per child increases in a rural area because there is no economy of scale. You are cooking for 100 children in one household. The unit cost goes up like anything. For instance, it costs us Rs 16 per meal per child in Baran as against Rs 9 or Rs 10 in other places. We have to provide meals to small batches of 100-200 children.

Is the menu different in rural areas?

It is not different. In Odisha we serve rice. But it is difficult to control quality and accountability of materials. It’s a challenge we haven’t been able to crack. We are thinking of trying out a hub and spoke model. We will provide semi-cooked food so that locally minimum cooking needs to be done. If there are roads in rural areas, it’s not a problem.