South Bangalore, India
* Feeding hungry children is not charity. It's social responsibility.
–Madhu Sridhar, Akshaya Patra Foundation
India stands poised to become one of the next world powers. The growth and prosperity in parts of the nation are undeniable—the country's 9 percent surge during fiscal year 2007-2008 makes it second only to China in terms of economic growth. But the reality for some in India is less dazzling. The nation is home to one-third of the world's malnourished children, and 25 million kids are not enrolled in primary school, according to Akshaya Patra Foundation, an Indian not-for-profit group focused on poverty and hunger issues.
“Hunger and malnourishment continue to haunt India, despite recent economic growth,” says Madhu Sridhar, Stoneham, Massachusetts, USA-based president of Akshaya Patra. “Many children do menial jobs to bring in money [instead of attending school]. Our basic belief is that no child shall be deprived of education because of hunger.”
Looking to address both hunger and education with one program, the group began sending food to schools, serving 1,500 children from a temporary kitchen in Bangalore in 2000. For many kids, it was their only complete meal of the day—a powerful incentive to show up for class.
Number of children fed every school day from 16 Akshaya Patra sites in 7 states
School enrollment shot up and orders from area schools increased rapidly. Demand eventually skyrocketed to 100,000 meals per day, and the small kitchen simply couldn't keep up. Requests for help were also coming from further away, but getting the meals to the kids in more rural areas posed a challenge because the delivery vehicles could only travel so far. To keep up with the growth, the group built several kitchens in other areas over the years. Then it launched a project to add a new site in South Bangalore—and this one would have a high-tech touch.
Down the Line
When Akshaya Patra started planning the South Bangalore kitchen in 2005, it had one important asset in place right from the start. An anonymous U.S. corporation had provided the group with a $1.2 million dollar grant— and 80 percent of it was slated for the new project.
To increase the new kitchen's effectiveness, it was set up like a vertical assembly line:
1. Vegetables are mechanically chopped on the top floor.
2. A chute transports them to the second floor, where the lentils are cooked.
3. The lentils and the vegetables drop to the first level and are sealed in packages.
4. On the same floor, the rice is steamed and placed in separate packages.
5. Conveyer belts carry the complete meals, including yogurt brought in from off site, onto the trucks.
But getting the technology in place was a bit tricky, and some major milestones had to be met along the way. That included the installation of an industrial boiler that would save the organization 250,000 rupees every month—enough to pay for 8,000 additional meals.
“We had been using diesel fuel and, of course, the price of oil is going up, and there are environmental issues with burning oil,” says Chanchalapathi Dasa, vice chairman, Akshaya Patra, Bangalore.
The solution was to use fuel made of compacted organic agricultural waste. But it was going to cost more—a lot more. The price of a boiler that burns organic waste is three times as much as a traditional system. The ROI was too great to pass up, though, and Akshaya Patra installed the boilers.
Then came the monsoons.
Between May and October, it can rain every day for hours in India, which obviously sparks some serious construction and accessibility delays. The road leading to the kitchen isn't paved, and there are issues surrounding its ownership and whether the city or the organization is responsible for it. So during the rains, the dirt road turned to mud, trapping vehicles that then had to be dragged to the site via tractor.
Even once the vehicles got to the site, the team still often had to contend with a shortage of water or power. “This is a developing area, and although we have made requests for the total quantity of water we need, the municipality is having trouble meeting the demand,” Mr. Dasa says. The organization paid to have truckloads of water brought in throughout the night and often relied on diesel generators when the city's power supply ran short.
All of these obstacles increased the project budget. With no government funding, the organization had to reach out to its donor base.
Although some outstanding issues remain, including the construction of a silo to store large quantities of rice, the South Bangalore kitchen project met its deadline. It opened in June 2007 and can now provide hot, healthy lunches to 100,000 children in five hours.
The cost of feeding one child per year
And in keeping with Akshaya Patra's original two-part goal, its impact on education in the region also has been impressive. In Bangalore alone, enrollment in grade 1 increased 23 percent in the program's first year, according to an independent 2006 study by A.C. Nielsen. The study also found that, overall, in the areas being served by Akshaya Patra's kitchens, 85 percent of teachers and administrators reported improved attendance and classroom performance.
Akshaya Patra now feeds 985,000 children from 16 kitchens in seven states for only $28 per child per year.
Ms. Sridhar's biggest concern going forward is money. “Our short-term goal is to feed 1 million children—and it will be met sooner than our estimate of 2010,” she says. “It's no joke to feed 1 million children, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.”
It Takes More Than a Village
As the world gets smaller, Ms. Sridhar cautions that to ignore the problems of the poor is dangerous for the future of the world's economy—and could mean even more significant talent management issues.
“We are living in a global world and what happens in India impacts the United States. India is a county with 1 billion people—if you don't educate this bulk of population you will miss out on a skilled labor force. What is a demographic asset will become a demographic liability, not only for India, but for the entire world,” she says.
“I very strongly believe feeding hungry children is not charity. It's social responsibility. We are counting on the compassion of individuals, of corporations and foundations,” Ms. Sridhar says. “There are many large corporations from around the world forming companies in India. You are in the community now and you have to give back to it.” –Libby Ellis
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