Bangalore: Seven-year-old Prakash tries not to miss school because of his favourite period: lunch hour.
Then, the class II student of RBNMS Cantonment Thirukulathar School, a government-aided Tamil medium school in Bangalore, gets to tuck into a meal of rice, sambhar (vegetable stew) and a cup of plain yogurt.
It may not sound like an exciting daily menu, but more often than not, it is also Prakash’s only meal for the day
His father is a mason who gets work irregularly and his mother works as a maid.
“I have two siblings,” he says. “At school, I enjoy an afternoon meal. If I’m at home, I have to wait till night for some food. Some days it might only be water.”
State governments across the country have tried to tackle the issue of school dropouts by implementing mid-day meal schemes, which were pioneered by former Tamil Nadu chief minister, M.G. Ramachandran in the early 1980’s.
Scrumptious: A mid-day meal at the RBNMS Cantonment Thirukulathar School in Bangalore, which is one of 4,500 schools across five states where the Akshay Patra Foundation is operating the scheme. (Photo: Gopinath Nair/ Mint)
But, the schemes have had mixed results, in part because of logistical hurdles.
For instance, food is to be cooked on the school premises and many government schools don’t have enough space or other infrastructure. Also there have been several instances of parents forbidding their children from eating because the food has been cooked by those of lower castes. And there have been instances of corruption by teachers and school authorities.
As a result, some state governments have tried to tackle the problems by entering into a partnership with private charitable players.
Consider, the Akshay Patra, a project which operates in five states—Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat—and is managed by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon).
Launched in 2000 by Iskcon, the Akshay Patra Foundation, named after a Sanskrit word for abundance, initially began by feeding 1,500 children in five government schools on Bangalore’s outskirts. The response was overwhelming and in six months, there were requests to expand the scheme. So, new kitchens were set up with support from companies, individuals and foundations.
Today, the foundation feeds 830,000 children everyday, mostly from poor socio-economic backgrounds, in 4,500 government- run or aided schools, in 14 centres across five states. The operations are overseen by a team of more than 60 volunteers.
The foundation’s menu has three items that vary based on local food habits. In Karnataka, children are served rice while they get roti in the northern India schools. Every Saturday, there is a treat—pongal in the south and kheer in the north.
Chanchalapathi Dasa, vice-chairman of the foundation, is keen to stress the non-Hindu nature of the scheme.
“For instance, we serve students at the government urdu higher primary school located in DG Halli and St Alphous higher primary school on Davis Road in Bangalore,” he says. “For us, everybody is equal and there is no discrimination based on caste, creed, gender, region or religion.”
The foundation’s model involves a central kitchen with food being sent to various schools participating in its programme.
“Our model ensures that teachers are not involved in non academic work,” says Dasa. In parts of Rajasthan and Orissa, for instance, the kitchens are run by self-help groups using tribal women.
Each meal served by foundation costs, on average, Rs4.91. The government subsidy amounts to Rs2.56 a meal, partly through foodgrain and rest in cash. The remaining Rs2.35 per meal comes from the foundation through private funds. Donors such as T.V. Mohandas Pai, one of the trustees of the foundation and human resources director at Infosys Technologies Ltd, has picked up the tab for two food delivery vehicles and donated Rs9 crore to the foundation.
“I have always been concerned with the fact that a large number of children drop out of education because of hunger,” says Pai.
“I like the work being done by the organization and decided to contribute both my time and money to it.”
Ramkumar Ramakrishnan, operations head of a multinational bank, contributes 5% of his annual income to the foundation. “I was convinced by their passion to bring radical change at the grass roots level,” he says.
The foundation’s Dasa says their work has been vindicated by research.
An ACNielsen baseline study in five locations across India, covering a sample size of 17,500 primary school children, showed that enrolment rose 23.8% during the first year of an Akshaya Patra mid-day meal intervention.
The study also concluded that enrolment in class I has recorded a 23.8% growth during the first year of the programme, with the enrolment of girls rising by 34.2%, much higher than the 13.8% increase in enrolment of boys.