Bengaluru: What started as an initiative to feed children of five schools in 2000 in Bengaluru has grown into one of the biggest such global enterprises, serving three billion meals in 19 years. The Akshaya Patra, an initiative of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), has been serving food in schools and jails in India, and also some public places abroad. 

In an email interaction with TOI, Madhu Pandit Dasa, chairman, Akshaya Patra Foundation, said his mission is to reach 5 million children every school day by 2025. Excerpts: 

Q: Iskcon has served the three billionth meal. Tell us about Akshaya Patra’s journey. 

A: Srila Prabhupada, the founder acharya of Iskcon, once witnessed the disturbing sight of children fighting with dogs for scraps of food. Deeply touched, he asked his followers to work towards a world where no one, especially children, would go hungry. With this, we started our school lunch programme in 2000. Over time, like-minded people came on board and their unwavering support helped us scale up from 1,500 to over 1.7 million beneficiaries. Our mission is to reach 5 million children every school day by 2025. We are driven by our belief that feeding children is not charity, but a social obligation, for these children are tomorrow’s flag-bearers. 

Q: What are the major challenges Iskcon faces? 

A: India being a huge country, each social issue needs to be addressed on a large scale to make a positive impact. Then there are factors that aren’t in our control. In schools, for instance, standards of hygiene of the place where food is stored after we deliver it, and until it is served, can be improved. Similarly, due importance should be given to the quality of water children drink when they have their meals. These are bigger challenges… 

Q: Akshay Patra has gone beyond school premises… 

A: We use our centralised kitchens, equipped to prepare 50,000-100,000 meals over a few hours, for social welfare as well. In Rajasthan, for instance, we have been using our kitchens to implement the state government’s Akshaya Kalewa programme and serve food at a subsidised rate to the needy. In Vrindavan, we feed hundreds of widowed mothers. In times of adversity, we have used our kitchens for disaster relief work. 

Q: Exclusion of garlic and onion from your menu has been hugely debated… 

A: Serving children safe, nutritious, hygienic and tasty food has and will always be our priority. Our meals are designed to meet the nutritional requirements recommended in mid-day meal (MDM) guidelines by the ministry of human resource development — 450 kcal and 12g protein for children studying in classes 1-5 and 700 kcal and 20g protein for children in classes 6-8. To ensure a tasty meal experience that is not monotonous we have a menu cycle that repeats once a month. One may say that onion and garlic enhance bioaccessibility of micronutrients. However, expert nutritionists, on the basis of several research papers, aver that bioaccessibility of micronutrients is enhanced also by items like turmeric, lime, cumin seeds, drumstick, curry leaves, tamarind, jaggery, tomato, green leafy vegetables and seasonal vegetables. We ensure all of these are used daily in Akshaya Patra menu. 

Source: The Times Of India         Dated: Feb 13, 2019