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NGO feeds 10 lakh school children everyday

Trisha Sanghavi | September 18, 2008

On the third floor of one of the largest kitchens in the world, vegetables bought from local farmers are washed and chopped. They are dropped through a chute to the second level, where lentils are cooked. The two are mixed and the sambar is then transported through yet another pipe to the first floor, where it is packed into stainless-steel containers and then transported outside to a distribution vehicle.

The drivers take this sambar, along with rice and yogurt, to over 1,85,000 schoolchildren in the Hubli region of Karnataka for lunch. This is one of the fifteen Akshaya Patra kitchens, preparing and delivering free midday meals for malnourished students across India and a vivid documentary, which is often screened at the events of the organisation, details the process.

In the northern states, the menu differs but there too the kitchens execute a hygienic and vast midday lunch programme, which reaches as many as one million students.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation is unique as it aims to simultaneously battle two hardships many poverty-ridden Indians endure: starvation and lack of education. By giving free, healthy lunches to students, this one-of-a-kind NGO provides an incentive for young students to enroll and stay in school.

For many students, their Akshaya Patra lunch is the only meal they receive all day. The organisation's logo, a golden urn, accurately portrays the Sanskrit meaning of akshaya patra: a never-ending pot.

Initiated eight years ago, Akshaya Patra, which is backed by philanthropists and businessmen such as Boston-based Gururaj Desh Deshpande and various government and philanthropic agencies, originally served midday meals to 1,500 students from a temporary kitchen in Bengaluru [Images].

After letters started pouring in from neighbouring schools, asking for a meal programme there, Akshaya Patra rapidly expanded. It currently runs the world's largest school-feeding programme. Deshpande serves as the chairman of Akshaya Patra's United States board.

The organisation has taken roots in America and is targeting to raise over $2.5 million in the next 12 months. A fundraiser is slated for September 21 at the Westin Hotel in Waltham Massachusetts with one of the organisation's staunch supporters,  Infosys [Get Quote] Chairman Narayana Murthy, as the chief guest.

Akshaya Patra launched its New Jersey/New York chapter with a kick-off event at the India Day Parade on August 17. After marching in the parade, a group of about ten volunteers, including Madhu Shashanka, ran an Akshaya Patra booth near the cultural stage to inform the parade attendees about the organisation as well as encourage them to contribute to the cause.

Mahindra Kumar of Rajasthan, another volunteer, helped distribute almost 1,000 fliers and pamphlets about Akshaya Patra. He hopes to raise more funds by joining hands with other corporate sponsors. About twenty visitors were interested enough to possibly become future volunteers.

Kumar, Shashanka, and the others are formalising the NJ/NY chapter and organising leadership and budgets. They hope to host another event this fall.

Earlier this February, at the 'Zero to Billion' event in India, Akshaya Patra invited several members from the government, corporate world, and media to share the organisation's success. At the event, Murthy announced Akshaya Patra's aim: One billion meals yearly by 2011.

Akshaya Patra volunteer Shashanka, who has joined the organisation recently,, is confident that this target can be reached with continued support from the volunteers and donations.

Shashanka was shocked to learn the vast numbers of children the organisation feeds. "What I'm really amazed is that we're able to do this at all. The scale at which we're doing this is just mind-boggling. I haven't seen the operations in India yet, but somehow it just amazes me and I cannot believe that we provide almost a million meals everyday, day after day. Just the logistics� it just amazes me."

President of Akshaya Patra USA, Madhu Sridhar, believes it is her responsibility to help the poor. "This programme, in my opinion, is not about providing a meal to a hungry child but about providing an opportunity to a young child to realise his or her full potential," she said.

Akshaya Patra's newest programme is called the 'One for One Campaign'. This movement reaches out to people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. It encourages everyone to donate $28, which can feed one student lunch for an entire year.

"There will be a counter on our website and as people go in, I hope we reach 1 million children. And then my job is done," she says, laughing.

Not only does Akshaya Patra feed students across Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh [Images], Rajasthan, Orissa, and Gujarat, but the organisation also benefits the local economy and is environmentally conscious.

The eco-friendly Hubli kitchen uses a harvesting system powered by rainwater, which saves money and the rapidly deteriorating environment. The vegetables that are fed to the students are purchased from local farmers and vendors.

The volunteers have been encouraging others to nominate the 'Feeding 1 Million Children Daily' project on membersproject.com.

If this project earns enough votes by September 1, Akshaya Patra has a chance of earning $2.5 million in funding from American Express.

The Akshaya Patra kitchen models were very well received at this year's Global Child Nutrition Foundation's meeting. Gene White, president of GCNF, was so impressed with the custom-built kitchens, that she said Akshaya Patra's efforts were "a unique and powerful story of humanitarian work at its best."

GCNF has already decided that their next meeting in 2010 will be in India because they want to see the kitchens designed by Indian Institute of Technology graduates.

"What I normally tell people is that everybody used to go to India to visit the Taj Mahal [Images]� and, mark my word, pretty soon people will be going to India to see the Akshaya Patra kitchens. That's a beauty. That's a pride of India," said Madhu Sridhar.

Image: The Akshaya Patra Foundation provides free, healthy lunches to students.

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