The Power Of Collective Action In Times Of Adversity

How world's largest (NGO-run) school lunch programme transformed into to an efficient relief feeding initiative during this deadly pandemic.

Chanchalapathi Dasa | May 08, 2020

Natural disasters, economic downturns, disease outbreaks and other such adversities are often accompanied by a food security crisis, depriving people of a basic necessity and making food assistance a vital component of the subsequent relief efforts. The Akshaya Patra Foundation has time and again strived to support the Government’s relief efforts by using its kitchen infrastructure across the country to feed people. These relief feeding initiatives are a result of a sustained partnership between Akshaya Patra, the Government, supporting organisations, corporate and individual donors and volunteers. These endeavours demonstrate the power of collective social responsibility turned into collaborative action, which has been the underpinning of the Foundation’s implementation of the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Programme all along.

Akshaya Patra’s school lunch programme began with the feeding of 1,500 children from five schools in Bengaluru, Karnataka, in the year 2000. It was a humble attempt to address the issue of classroom hunger in the country by providing children a wholesome meal every school day, driven by Srila Prabhupada’s vision of a hunger-free world. When the Government of India’s flagship programme, the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme was launched, the Union Government and State Governments partnered with Akshaya Patra for its implementation in various locations. Today, as the implementing partner of the MDM Programme, the Foundation serves freshly cooked, nutritious mid-day meals to 18,00,907 children of 19,039 schools in 51 locations across 12 states every school day, becoming the largest NGO-run school lunch programme in the world.

Akshaya Patra’s well-established network of kitchens enables it to reach over 1.8 million children every school day. These kitchens facilitate large scale feeding, whilst ensuring safe handling, preparation, and delivery of food. In this system, all the operations, which include receiving and storage of raw material, preparation and delivery of meals, and maintenance, are managed from a single point of control. The scale and operational efficiency of these kitchens aid in maximizing the impact of the MDM Programme.

However, there is more to Akshaya Patra’s endeavour than just its kitchen network. It is a partnership between the Union Government, State Governments, civic administrations, corporates, philanthropists, volunteers, and a 7,000-strong staff comprising of cooks, helpers, drivers, etc., coming together to ensure that over 1.8 million children across the country get freshly cooked, hygienic, safe and nutritious mid-day meals in a timely manner. For over two decades, this collaboration has strived to ensure that children are not deprived of an education because of hunger. Today, in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown to contain this pandemic, it is striving to ensure that vulnerable communities are not deprived of food.

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Over the last few months, countries across the world have been grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and opting for a lockdown to contain the outbreak. In India, an initial 21-day complete lockdown was announced and later extended due to which the outbreak has had implications on the day-to-day lives of millions of people from all sections of society in some way or the other. Most affected though, have been the more vulnerable communities, such as the daily-wage earners, construction labourers, industrial workers, domestic helpers, rough sleepers, unemployed individuals, etc., for whom it is becoming increasingly difficult to arrange two square meals a day. Akshaya Patra is aiding the Government’s efforts to help these people by using its kitchens to provide cooked meals and by distributing food relief kits containing essential groceries.

Akshaya Patra has previously used its kitchen infrastructure to aid subsidized feeding programmes and relief feeding initiatives across the country. The same system that feeds nutritious mid-day meals to 1.8 million children across the country every day, is today being used to serve the people affected by the lockdown. As of 05th May, Akshaya Patra and its supporting organisations have cumulatively served over 40 Million meals across the country. These include more than 20 million cooked meals and nearly 5,28,000 food relief kits (1 Kit = 42 Meals).

Akshaya Patra is undertaking relief feeding through its network of kitchens in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Delhi and NCR, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, and Uttar Pradesh. It is utilizing its kitchen network to prepare food and deliver it to the centres assigned by the authorities where it is then served to people in need.

Simultaneously, packaging centres have been set up in various locations across the country where food relief kits are packed with essential groceries based on the local palate. Each kit has dry ration that is sufficient to cook 42 or 28 meals. Although the Foundation is in the process of setting up its kitchens in Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand, it is using existing structures and resources to distribute food relief kits to the vulnerable individuals.

As with the school feeding programme, the relief feeding endeavour is also a result of the collaboration with the Government of India, State Governments, UT Administrations, civic bodies, corporate partners, individual donors, etc. In Karnataka, for instance, Akshaya Patra has undertaken food relief operations in association with the Labour Department of the Government of Karnataka and distributed of over 1 lakh food relief kits.

In addition to the constant support and encouragement from the Government, Akshaya Patra has also had the proactive support of corporate houses and individual donors. Smt. Sudha Murty and Shri. Narayana Murthy and their family contributed 10 Crores from their funds, enabling Akshaya Patra to distribute 1.33 lakh food relief kits to the families in need. Several corporate houses, such as the Biocon Foundation, Capgemini, CISCO, Coca-Cola, CLP, Deutsche Bank, DLF Foundation, Goldman Sachs, Gland Pharmaceuticals, HT Parekh Foundation, Hero Moto Corp, Infosys Foundation, LG Electronics, Morgan Stanley, Nestle India, PepsiCo Foundation, Sarojini Trust, Texas Instruments, Vedanta, Vivo, Walmart and many others, have come forward to contribute to the relief feeding endeavour. It is also worth noting that motivated volunteers have selflessly come forward to answer the call of at this the hour of need and helped the Foundation meet the manpower requirements to undertake the relief effort.

Over the last two decades, Akshaya Patra has successfully channelized the power of collective action to make the MDM Programme a trusted, respected, and appreciated public-private partnership in the social sector. Today, with the COVID-19 outbreak making it difficult for millions of people across the country to access food, the Foundation is drawing upon the same collective action to add to the efficiency of the Government’s relief efforts through food assistance.

(The author is Vice-Chairman, The Akshaya Patra Foundation)