Madhu Pandit Dasa, Akshaya Patra Foundation | ‘We want to provide health, hope and happiness’

In an exclusive interview with CSR TIMES and CSR Tree, Madhu Pandit Dasa, chairman and Founder, the Akshaya Patra Foundation, speaks on how they began with feeding 1,500 schoolchildren in Bengaluru and are now reaching out to 1.6 million beneficiaries across 29 locations in 12 states.

How did the idea of feeding the underprivileged children come to you and how did you manage to do it on such a large scale?

Without food, there is nothing. When Srila Prabhupada, the Founder Acharya of ISKCON, saw some children fight with street dogs for scraps of food, he was deeply hurt. He asked his followers to ensure that nobody in 10-mile radius of the centre would ever go hungry. Inspired by Prabhupada’s story of compassion, we began feeding people who would visit the temple. One day, T.V. Mohandas Pai, former CEO of Infosys, came to the temple and asked if it would be possible to start an initiative to feed needy children studying in nearby schools and we were more than happy to help. He even donated the first delivery vehicle to the organization.

A major boost to our school lunch programme came in the form of the Supreme Court mandate asking states to provide cooked mid-day meals to children in government schools. Over the course of time, several benevolent people came forward to help, and soon enough, we were able to scale up and partner with different states—growing from   1,500   beneficiaries   in Bengaluru to over 1.6 million beneficiaries across 29 locations in 12 states.

How has the mid-day meal programme helped to check school dropout rates in the primary section?

We have come a long way to become the largest non-profit-run school lunch programme in the world. Most of these children come to school only because they are assured of one square meal. In fact, for some of these, this is the only proper meal they have every day. Poverty is one of the main reasons why children drop out of the school, so the promise of a meal doesn’t just bring children to the school, but also prompts their parents   to continue sending them to school instead of sending them   to work.

In 2014, we collaborated with the Sigma Research and Consulting Pvt Ltd for a baseline study to assess the outcomes of the programme implementation across eight states. This study showed that enrolment and attendance had increased significantly after the introduction of mid-day meals in the schools.

Do you think a similar mid-day meal programme in higher secondary schools could help students stay back after primary level schooling?

Be it a Class I student or Class XII student, hunger hinders   the learning process as well as overall growth. If we take that into consideration, providing mid-day meals in higher secondary schools will definitely have a positive impact on the students.

Tell us about your state-of-the-art kitchens. what are the parameters for checking that the food has necessary nutrients for children and is hygienic?

It is not just about providing a meal to needy children. We want to provide them health, hope and happiness. We are committed to do it in a safe and sustainable manner, and therefore, we have numerous mechanisms and processes in place. These mechanisms help us regularly monitor and evaluate the school lunch programme.

We collect daily feedback from schools and act on stakeholder complaint within 24 hours. Periodic checks on cooking temperatures and batch-wise quality checks are done to maintain the quality of meals. Similarly, supplier quality management system (SQMS) is implemented to ensure that we only partner with qualified suppliers and first in- first out (FIFO) method is implemented to make sure all perishable items are used efficiently. Customized vehicles are used to deliver food to schools, so that children get piping hot food every day.

We follow 100 per cent adherence to maintain the quality and taste of food. We also take local palate into consideration; so kitchens in South India have rice-based menu and those in North India have wheat-based menu. The food is cooked in hygienic conditions under the watchful eyes of trained cooks and production supervisors.

We understand the importance of quality food for growing children and make it a point to ensure that the food we serve fulfils their dietary requirements.

Where do you envision reaching in the next five years? Are you talking to state governments of other states too for expansion?

We have definitely come a long way since our collaboration with the state government of Karnataka for Akshara Dasoha back in 2003. Our tie-ups with various state governments mean now we are effectively reaching over 1.6 million children across 29 locations in the country. We are open to the possibility of tie- ups with other state governments as scaling up, we believe, will help us reach more children. Our association with the states with which we have already partnered can serve as a template for future collaborations. In fact, with the support the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), we are already in talks with other state governments to extend our services. We are also in the process of setting up new kitchens in states where we already operate.

The aim to reach five million children every school day by 2020 seemed like a colossal task when we began the journey, but over the period of 17 years—driven by the need to reach as many children as possible with nutritious food, we have realized that it is very much feasible.

How do you view the CSR policy in the companies Act?

The CSR policy in the Companies Act 2013 gives boost to the idea of corporates and non-profits working together towards a common cause. The arrangement is mutually beneficial for both, with corporates benefiting from the expertise of non-profit organizations and the groundwork these organizations   have   done,   and   non-profits   getting   a sustainable source of funds. More importantly, the arrangement is beneficial for the whole idea of the active participation of civil society in nation building as it is not the responsibility of the government alone.

What is your primary source of funding? How helpful have corporate funds been for you?

The government provides us grains and cash subsidies. Grains are provided through the food Corporation of India (fCI) and the food and Civil Supplies Corporations. Cash subsidies come from the state governments. We are authorized to raise the deficit amount from corporate and individual donors from within India and abroad through resource mobilization. The permission to collect donations from within the country is granted by the Ministry of finance, while overseas donations come under the ambit of the Ministry of External Affairs. These funds help us to provide multi- item menu cooked in state-of-the-art facilities where proper hygiene is given due importance.

We have adhered to transparency and accountability since the beginning and that has helped us establish ourselves as a credible organisation. In addition, the corporate sector knows the importance of the cause we are pursuing. The CSR mandate

that came as a part of the Companies Act 2013 has also prompted many companies to come forward and do their bit for the society. All these factors have made it considerably easier for us to approach business houses and raise funds in our mission to reach five million children by 2020.

In your view how can a synergy be built between the government, corporate houses and NGOs to take forward social welfare schemes?

In a diverse country like India, it is important to encourage citizens to participate proactively in the process of nation building. One way to do this effectively is to adopt the public-private partnership (PPP) model in the social sector. Non-profits can lead from the front to make this possible by bringing together various stakeholders. We have done this successfully by forging a partnership with the Government of India and bringing together several corporate houses and individual donors to implement the mid-day meal scheme. This has resulted in a strong system comprising the Central Government, state governments, corporate houses and individuals, which works to tirelessly feed the children of this country and bring them to school. There is no dearth of success stories of the PPP model in the infrastructure sector. And there is no reason to believe there won’t be success stories of the same in the socio-economic sector.