2 Dec : When the Delhi government’s mid-day meal programme is under fire for its quality, an NGO has created a record of sorts by feeding 10 lakh school children by spending just Rs 5.52 for a child per day.
Akshaya Patra Foundation which runs one of the world’s largest school meal programme presently feeds around 11.5 lakh children in seven states across India.
“In 2000, there was no mid day meal programme in Karnataka. A nutritious school meal had been found to be an effective means of getting underprivileged children to go to school and complete their education. So we formed a not-for-profit organization in June 2000 to take up this cause,” says Chanchalpati Dasa, Vice Chairman, Akshaya Patra.
The scheme which began as a pilot project feeding 1,500 children in five schools in Bangalore has now grown into a mammoth endeavour reaching out to over a million children, he informs. Technology-intensive centralized kitchens prepare nutritious meals cooking about one lakh meals in less than five hours with least human intervention.
Since 2006, there have been around 3000 reported cases of students being hospitalized after eating the mid day meal in government schools. The Delhi government was forced to suspend its midday meal scheme on 28th November when over 100 children fell ill after eating the meal in Trilokpuri. However, the scheme has been resumed from 1st December.
“We have not faced any such incident where a child has fallen sick after having our meal. Our kitchens are ISO certified and we conduct a third party surprise hygiene audit of our kitchens and kitchen processes. We periodically train our staff in food safety management systems and safe food handling techniques,” says Dasa.
He feels its not easy to translate the government’s good intentions into practical action regarding the mid-day meal project.
“We must appreciate the nature and enormity of the program. The food has to be nutritious, tasty and above all, safe. The enormity of task is daunting when it comes to feeding 120 million children in government school system especially with a relatively small amount,” he says.
The government of India has acknowledged Akshaya Patra and gives upto 55 per cent of the total revenue that they spend on the meal programme.
The NGO which operates in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, UP, Orissa, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh had to also deal with complicated caste equations prevailing in various states.
“Initially, there were some problems in rural areas related to issues like caste but it disappeared later on. Since children sit together, they start socializing and cutting across caste and religion, they sit and eat here” says Dasa.
In a 2006 study by market research firm A C Nielson pointed out an increase in school attendance, nutrition level of students and decrease in drop out rates at places where Akshay Patra was providing mid day meals.
The foundation next aims to feed 50 lakh students by 2050.