1. The Akshaya Patra Foundation was started 18 years ago. Can you tell us what was the inspiration, how the journey has been so far, and what the future looks like?

In the year 2000, we decided to start a school lunch programme to address the issue of classroom hunger with the vision 'No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.' We started with the feeding of 1,500 children in Bengaluru, Karnataka. As more like-minded people came on board, we grew from strength to strength. Akshaya Patra has been the confluence of people from different walks of life coming together for a common cause.

Since inception, we have been working closely with the Government of India and various State Governments, providing children a quality, nutritious, and tasty mid-day meal as an incentive to come to school, thus contributing towards their overall health and education. Today, we serve more than 1.76 million children studying in Government schools across 12 states of the country. Through our school lunch programme, we directly contribute to our nation's pursuit of two critical UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Zero Hunger and Quality Education. Recently, we reached the milestone of serving 3 Billion cumulative meals-an important milestone in our mission to reach 5 million children by 2025.

Our mission is to reach 5 million beneficiaries with nutritious and tasty food every school day by 2025, thus creating an extensive impact on our society. We are taking measures to collaborate with more State Governments and at the same time, set up new kitchens in states where we already exist. 

Furthermore, we want to contribute towards the holistic development of children by going beyond the meal programme to provide them a conducive environment at schools and support their dreams and aspirations.

2. Can you tell us more about these beyond the meals initiatives; what are these initiatives and how are they contributing to children's wellbeing and development?

The promise of a nutritious meal as an incentive brings more than 94 million children to school every day. In doing so, it provides an opportunity to go beyond the meal programme and focus on the holistic development of children.

We have the 'School and Student Transformation' initiative which seeks to create an environment that is instrumental towards student development by focusing on infrastructural changes and educational interventions. Similarly, we have the 'Giving Every Dream a Chance' initiative, which has been implemented to provide our beneficiaries an opportunity to pursue their unique and special dreams. We are also providing scholarships to children to help them with their educational pursuit.

Mid-day meals boost the physical and cognitive development of children. Through initiatives that go beyond the meals, we are attempting to build on this development. In the long run, these initiatives are our attempts to facilitate the transformation of communities, to empower them.

3. Could you provide us with more insight about the Giving Every Dream a Chance initiative? 

We initiated the 'Giving Every Dream a Chance' initiative to empower our beneficiaries to dream big and to support and promote their talent by helping them pursue it. The idea was that every child has a dream and all dreams are valid, thus need to be supported. Through this mentorship initiative, children are being provided training in dance, music, theatre, sports, and even robotics. Our aim is to provide children an opportunity to enhance their skills by identifying and nurturing them.

4. How successful has the GEDAC initiative been as of now? Could you tell us something about the progress you have made since its inception?

We began this programme in 2016 on a pilot basis, empowering three beneficiaries: Manjula, an aspiring actress; Shivu, a budding astronomer; and Shekar, a chef-in-making. Today, close to 3,500 children benefit from the initiative. We have also been organising events to showcase the talents of beneficiary children thus giving them exposure. Recently, we organised one such talent showcase event in Jaipur in which children got an opportunity to showcase their singing prowess.

5. How does the future of Giving Every Dream a Chance look like? What is the plan you are working on?

Over the next few years, we plan to touch the lives of over 100,000 beneficiaries across the country as a part of the Giving Every Dream a Chance initiative. We will mentor these children in the field of their interest and empower them in their pursuit of a better tomorrow. While we focus on sports, theatre, music, etc., as of now, we are looking into the feasibility of adding more vocations to the list.

Our mentorship initiative is one component of the larger ecosystem we are trying to build here, with the wellbeing and development of children at the core. We are hopeful that more organisations and donors will come forward to support us over the next few years and we will be able to establish a strong system to tirelessly serve the children of our country.

Source: Chicago Tribune            Dated: Wed, April 17, 2019