A few months ago, I got an opportunity to be inside the world's biggest community kitchen, along with some of my American and Canadian friends. On that early morning, our 20-member team went for an amazing field visit on the outskirts of Hubli in northwest Karnataka.
As we entered and stood inside that three-storied Akshaya Patra kitchen complex, I had vivid flashbacks to my schooldays in the 1980s.
When I was in classes six and seven at the Government Higher Primary School in Khamabadakone (a village in coastal Karnataka), the government used to provide midday meals for children. We had a separate kitchen on one side of school building. Those days, the UN and the US used to send food materials and edible oil for school meals scheme in India. Every month, when our school received its ration, the older students, sometimes with the help of teacher, would prepare uppittu (also called khara baath) from the grain and palm oil received as aid. At lunch time, about 30% of the children would sit to eat served by fellow students in the corridor. Usually, children belonging to the middle and upper middle classes would eschew the midday meal in favour of a packed lunch or a quick visit home. I myself ate the uppittu at school only twice. Those days, caste and class factors and taboos were so intertwined in our lives.
"Up to 15,000 kilos of rice, 12,000 litres of sambhar and 6000 litres of milk are loaded on to trucks. By noon, all the schools in the region have their midday meals."
Back to the present and our field visit, Yagneshwara Das of Akshaya Patra took us on a tour inside Hubli's wonder kitchen. He told us why and how the vision to ensure that "No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger" took form and manifested itself as a school meals programme.
The birth of the Akshaya Patra itself dates back to the year 2000 when the ever-smiling Mohandas Pai, one of the founders of Infosys, visited the Iskcon Temple in Bangalore. Pai wanted to do something meaningful to give back to society. He met Madhu Pandit Das and that led to the formation of Akshaya Patra in Bangalore.
"In the earlier stages we used to cover a few schools in Bangalore city and fed about 1,500 students. Slowly, we started expanding our operation. We started feeling around 300 students in Hubli," recalled as he showed us the well-stocked three-level kitchen on the first floor.
In 2004, the Indian government started a flagship education programme called Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and with that the new Midday Meal Scheme was also launched. It provided a perfect opportunity for Akshaya Patra to take its mission of feeding hungry children to the next level by joining hands with the government.
"Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy and Deshpande Foundation founder Gururaj (Desh) Deshpande donated wholeheartedly and we established our first centralised kitchen in Hubli in 2004. Today, all seven days of the week, this completely mechanised kitchen prepares 1,85,000 midday meals in five hours to serve children in more than 800 government schools spread across Hubli-Dharwad. The Akshaya Patra complex has its own fuel plant and heating plant," Das explained. Later, the Deshpande Foundation started a social innovation and entrepreneurial experiment called Sandbox in Hubli which continued to support the Akshaya Patra programme.
Here, the operation begins before dawn. Up to 15,000 kilos of rice, 12,000 litres of sambhar and 6000 litres of milk are loaded on to trucks. By noon, all the schools in the region have their midday meals. A total of 450 staff members run this Six Sigma operation with great efficiency.
"Usually, what happens in India is that the quality goes down when we scale up. We wanted to avoid that. With the help of Sandbox, we started adopting technology to standardise our operation. Infosys helped us by coming up with an information and control system. Nielsen did an audit of our performance. PwC did our financial audit. What Sandbox did for us was to provide us the crucial pilot space. With help coming our way, we successfully tested new technologies. We had many hurdles initially, but slowly we overcame them and fine-tuned our work process to perfection. Recently, we adopted the Six Sigma model and saved $450,000 (Rs 2.7 crore) in just six months. From ensuring quality of food to an effective supply chain system, every part of the operation is monitored carefully. Even the supply trucks have been fitted with GPS and we monitor their movement all the time. Irrespective of the season, the trucks reach school on time and deliver it per schedule. By 2pm every day, the same trucks collect empty vessels and return to the campus before 5pm. During the next two hours, all vessels and trucks would be cleaned and kept ready for the next day's operation," Das explained.
Desh Deshpande heads the fund-raising committee of Akshaya Patra's US chapter and with his entrepreneurial acumen, he has been helping the world's largest midday meals scheme to run in a sustainable mode. Today, Akshaya Patra stands out as a model of how technology and operational excellence can elevate a noble cause to great heights.
The success of the centralised kitchen in Hubli encouraged Akshaya Patra to build many more across the country (currently in 24 locations spread across 10 states). They are now building the biggest centralised kitchen of the world in Hyderabad. As a result of the successful partnership with the Government of India, various state governments and generous supporters like Sandbox, the organisation is feeding 1.4 million children every day!
"Akshaya Patra stands out as a model of how technology and operational excellence can elevate a noble cause to great heights."
As we emerged from our one-and-a-half-hour tour of the kitchen building, I saw trucks loaded with midday meals starting to move out of the Akshaya Patra complex. Suddenly, the face of Manjunath, my classmate in primary school, flashed in my mind. Though he belonged to an upper caste family, his parents were poor and used to work as agricultural labourers in my village. Between class one and seven, his parents forced him to quit school several times in order for him to work in the fields. The only thing that worked as an incentive to attend school was that uppittu served during the midday meal.
For seven long, he ate it every day. I used to keep him company and would give him my share of the food. He used to pack it to eat at night. We both grew up together. Manju, an average student in high school, emerged as a brilliant student in plus two. He later qualified for medical school and is now a successful surgeon.
When those trucks crossed the Akshaya Patra complex gates, I could visualise the faces of 1.4 million Manjus. Yes, one meal has the power to change the course of a life. And it is changing the lives of millions in India.