Shikha Bhatnagar, 30, has been appointed executive director of the new US office of the Akshaya Patra Foundation, the world's largest non-governmental organisation-run school lunch program, thanks to a major grant from the Desh and Jaishree Deshpande Foundation.
The APF, in operation since 2000 and based in Bangalore, aims to help underprivileged children in India break the cycle of poverty by increasing their nutritional intake and promoting their education.
The Deshpandes' grant is intended to fund both the Stoneham, Massachusetts-based office as well as to help APF's US operations grow.
With support from federal and state governments in India and major corporations like Infosys the organisation runs cost-effective stainless-steel kitchens that cook nutritious school lunches daily for more than 460,000 underprivileged school children in various parts of India.
The organisation is acclaimed for its effectiveness and held out as a model of how public, private and social service organisations can work with each other to achieve substantial results, and how technology can be leveraged for the social good.
The US office is intended to create awareness about child education and nutrition issues in India, and explore ways to scale operations to feed one million children by 2010. Bhatnagar will oversee and manage all operations, including fundraising, administrative, and public relations.
New Delhi-born Bhatnagar, who was raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, told rediff India Abroad, "Having been educated in the US public school system and seeing the benefits of our country's school lunch program, it is especially fulfilling to potentially be able to replicate its success in India."
She said she had visited Akshaya Patra kitchens in India and met the children. "Just to see the smiles on their faces after receiving a good meal was priceless," she said.
"Although India's economic prowess is making headlines, I believe it is also important for the community to acknowledge that there are still significant parts of the Indian population who are being marginalised and not benefiting from India's new-found wealth," she said, pointing out that millions of those were malnourished children.
They suffered some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, even greater than what is seen in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. "These rates are unacceptable, given the low cost of feeding these children in India," she said.
The Akshaya Patra model can feed one child every day for an entire school year for only $28. One million dollars can build a kitchen that can feed over 350,000 children. Given the strength of the Indian-American community, she was confident it would assist in this important cause, she said.
Bhatnagar said since Akshaya Patra is the largest program of its kind in the world, in addition to seeking support and learning from other programs, the US office would introduce the program to decision-makers as a model that may be replicable not only in other parts of India, but elsewhere in the world.
Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande, one of the most successful information technology entrepreneurs in the country, told rediff India Abroad, "Akshaya Patra is a testimonial for what Indian organisations can achieve when they use their new-found global perspective and experience to benefit their fellow human beings.
"By combining good management, innovative use of technology and smart engineering, Akshaya Patra has built a model to deliver school lunches at a fraction of the cost of similar programs in other parts of the world. It is a model for how things can quickly change for the better in India with the right combination of ingenuity, dedication and smart people," Desh Deshpande said.
His wife Jaishree Deshpande told rediff India Abroad, "As someone who grew up in Karnataka, it is very rewarding to be involved with a program dedicated to helping India's children."
She predicted that "through the Akshaya Patra program, a whole generation of children in India will get the boost that they need to improve their health and educational achievement." Akshaya Patra's new state-of-the-art kitchen in Hubli, the Deshpandes' home town, is to provide food to more than 200,000 children there daily, and thus give them extra incentive to study at school.
"These children are the future of India and Akshaya Patra helps give them the opportunity to succeed," she said
Nishith Acharya, executive director, The Deshpande Foundation, said they wanted to be able to scale its program throughout India, and one way was to help APF tap donors in the United States. "American foundations and the US government have provided hundreds of millions of dollars annually for education and nutrition programs around the world. Akshaya Patra can be the next beneficiary of their support," he said, adding that The Deshpande Foundation, by providing seed funding for APF's US headquarters, "can help them build relationships with Indian Americans, US foundations, philanthropists and government agencies."
Bhatnagar earlier worked with the US government as an international trade specialist in the Office of Textiles and Apparel at the US Department of Commerce. Prior to that, she had stints with the United Nations Development Fund for Women, working on gender and trade issues, and with the International Labor Rights Fund. While working with the Fund, she spent much time working with rural development organisations in India.
She earned her bachelor's degree in international relations and political science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University, New York.
Bhatnagar, a second-generation Indian American, has served on the executive boards of the Network of South Asian Professionals in Washington, DC, and the Upakar Foundation, the Indian-American scholarship program. She has also served as the community network director for Indus Women Leaders in Washington, DC.