'When we feed needy children, we do God's work'
PepsiCo Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Indra K Nooyi, who hardly takes time off for social events, could not resist helping the latest fundraiser by Akshaya Patra, a non-profit organisation providing hot, nutritious mid day meal for 1.2 underprivileged children in India.
"When we dedicate ourselves to feeding the world, we are in fact doing god's work," she declared at the recent event in Boston.
"Akshaya Patra embodies that idea, feeding over 1 million children every day during the school year. That is why we are committed to this organisation -- because we believe in connecting a child's nutrition with a child's education. Because we recognise that children's potential is stunted not only when they are hungry and poor but also when they don't have access to education. Because we know that when a child is nurtured and nourished, educated and prepared, our children become the Akshaya Patra, the unlimited vessel of potential, of success, of hope," she said.
The event raised nearly $450,000 (about Rs 2 crore), bringing the total from three fundraisers so far to about $1 million (about Rs 4.5 crore).
Nooyi, one of the most respected corporate leaders in America, added: "The message of Akshaya Patra, which PepsiCo believes in deeply, is clear. We can meet the world's food needs as long as we work together to create change."
Nooyi , who recalled her years growing up in Chennai and how millions had to deal with food rations, also spoke about the impact that the Green Revolution -- India's agricultural productivity boost in the 1970s -- had on improving the quality of life in India.
She also mused: "A child's hunger is entirely preventable, the simple and powerful mission of Akshaya Patra is not just filling empty bellies, but changing the trajectory of countless lives, and this gives us all a renewed sense of what is possible and working together we can unleash the possibility of a better future for every child."
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'We are creating a community around Akshaya Patra'
Though Akshaya Patra has been doing excellent work for many years, it was hardly known in North America. But thanks to the efforts of business tycoon Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande, the chairman of Akshaya Patra USA, and its president and CEO Madhu Sridhar, it not only beckons Nooyi and bestselling author like Deepak Chopra -- who last year joined its board -- but also members of the community at large.
And dozens of Indian-American kids. In some cases, it is not just their fathers who are from India but their mothers -- American or Greek American or of Mexican origin -- also become part of the campaign.
"Akshaya Patra is more than a fundraising organisation in America," said Sridhar. "We are creating a community around it. In some cases, young children help us because their parents are involved. And in other cases, they have heard of Akshaya Patra and studied its work and hence they feel that not only they but their parents should also be part of this movement."
The young notice by putting aside their pocket money for a month or two that they can feed hundreds of children in India and that makes them not just feel good but want to contribute more.
"And like their parents and other supporters of Akshaya Patra they know that providing meals and education will break these children's cycle of poverty," Sridhar added.
"Our supporters believe their contribution will bring about peace and make them productive citizens."
Akshaya Patra is built from the ground up, she continued. "Ours is a grassroot organisation," she declared. "Volunteers are the backbone of the chapters."
She also said that as in many cities, Indian Americans in Boston and their friends have demonstrated steady support for the organisation.
"The Boston community's unwavering commitment to the future of the children," she asserted, "and the heartwarming enthusiasm to ensure that hunger is not a barrier to education was on full display during the benefit event."
Image: Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande, Indra Nooyi, Madhu Sridhar and Raj Nooyi at the Akshaya Patra fundraiser
'I wanted to find out how our help was spent'
At the Massachusetts event, Meera Bhan, 16, spoke about her efforts to help the organisation. "Akshaya Patra is an example of how powerful we can be when we work together," she said. "It shows the significant changes we can make in the world when we all combine our creativity and intelligence."
Earlier in Silicon Valley, Anjali Rangaswami, 11, extolled the organisation and spoke about her experience at a school in Bangalore which offers Akshaya Patra meals. Her father M R Rangaswami, an angel investor in Silicon Valley, is a strong supporter of the organisation.
Anjali said she had read how the program feeds 1.3 million children daily during the school months in over 8,000 schools through 18 kitchens in eight states in India.
"On my last birthday I told everyone I did not want gifts and the $300 I got instead of gifts I gave to Akshaya Patra," Anjali said.
Last summer, she accompanied her father to a school in Bangalore where the Akshaya Patra kitchen is situated in a temple.
"Though I had read a lot about this organization and heard many things from my father, I was still curious find out how it operated," she said. "Often when we donate, we do not know how our money is spent. I wanted to find out things on my own."
When she stepped into the kitchen, she felt she had seen "the most amazing" high-tech kitchen in her young life. "We stayed there not only seeing the food prepared but also loaded into trucks," she said. "And we went to the actual feeding."
She also realised once again how privileged millions of young people are in affluent countries or in well-to-do families and how millions of children like her would be malnourished but for organisations like Akshaya Patra.
"I can eat whatever I want," she mused. "For children like me, it is a question of opening a cupboard. But when I think of millions who have no good food or food at all, I want to do something."
She has shared her experience in a school essay and she plans to help the organisation through her father. She adds that she wants to inspire young Indian Americans across the country to help the organisation, and is planning to spend a few weeks in the Akshaya Patra kitchens in summers across the years.
"I learn a lot from my father," she added. "He gives back so much and he is involved in organisations those make a change. In Bangalore, and in the Akshaya Patra here, I found many dedicated people. They are constantly giving back. I want to continue to be like them, and keep giving back in a bigger way."
Anjali, who shared the dais with Deepak Chopra at the Silicon Valley fundraiser, said: "Often people tell you, you are a kid; but there is a lot of good work kids can do. And we can inspire many kids too. And some adults, too."
Image: Anjali Rangaswami, 1st one washing dishes, at an Akshaya Patra-sponsored school kitchen in Bangalore
'We can eliminate one-third of the poverty in the world'
Meera Bhan, a high school student in Andover, Massachusetts, had a special message for the over 440 guests at the recent fundraiser for Akshaya Patra.
It echoed the speech she had made last year and also talked about how she had raised nearly $8,000 for the organisation through a letter campaign and directing 'sweet sixteen' gifts to the charity.
"Together, if we can help eradicate hunger in India," Meera, a highly motivated student from one of the most prestigious institutions in America, the Pike School, had said last year, "we can eliminate one-third of the poverty in the world."
She threw the guests a simple challenge in the hope they will convince others to donate to the organisation that feeds about 1.3 million children free during the school year in India.
"$14 is a very small amount," she said. "We can buy dinner at a restaurant, a DVD, or maybe a book for that amount. But with Akshaya Patra Foundation's innovative technology and government subsidy, it can feed one child an everyday meal for a whole school year. So, please help."
What she likes best about Akshaya Patra's work in India, she said, it does not work at just eradicating hunger.
"Everything is tied to getting the students to the schools and help them get educated by eradicating the hunger," she said. "I read about the organisation about two years ago in an Indian magazine when I was looking for doing voluntary service for an organisation connected to India."
About the money she has raised in less than two years, she said, "It may not sound like a big amount but just imagine how many children it feeds." It is also an example for second-generation Indian-American children to help fight poverty and deprivation.
She has never been to an Akshaya Patra kitchen but she has plans to spend a few weeks in one of its facilities during her school break.
She began her campaign with a letter sent to family members and friends.
Meera has not decided on her college courses; she is at times tempted to think of a medical career. "Part of my time I can help the poor in India or Africa," she said, or in poorer communities in America.
Her parents are doctors and so are her two half-sisters.
"I also think at times there are too many doctors in the family," she said with a chuckle. "I am sure there are many other careers where you have opportunity to help the indigent."
Image: Meera Bhan