Cooking up a storm for In­dia’s school lunch scheme


Churn­ing out 1.2 tonn of curry in un­der an hour, staff run­ning the spot­lessly clean, high-tech kitchen are hop­ing to turn around the shock­ing rep­u­ta­tion of In­dia’s free school lunch scheme.

As a large ma­chine rolls out thou­sands of fluffy, hot ro­tis (flat breads), aproned men add spices to veg­eta­bles and broths cooking in gi­ant steel pots in the three­storey kitchen in the Hindu holy city of Vrin­da­van.

“We had the vi­sion that no child should be de­prived of ed­u­ca­tion be­cause of hunger,” said Bharatar­shabha Dasa, spokesman for the Ak­shaya Pa­tra Foun­da­tion which man­ages the kitchen.

Ham­pered by cor­rup­tion and in­ef­fi­ciency, the gov­ern­ment’s mid­day meal pro­gram is the world’s largest, with 120 mil­lion chil­dren to feed daily.

Stu­dents of­ten fall sick af­ter eat­ing con­tam­i­nated and poorly pre­pared food, and in 2013 about two dozen chil­dren died in an im­pov­er­ished dis­trict of Bi­har af­ter they ate a meal laced with pes­ti­cide.

“Our en­deavor is to change the per­cep­tion of mid­day meals in the coun­try in the long run,” Dasa told AFP.

Dasa’s op­er­a­tions started small in 2000, serv­ing just 1,500 chil­dren in the south­ern state of Kar­nataka. But it has since grown rapidly, with cen­tral­ized kitchens in which meals are cooked and sent out to schools.

“Now we are cater­ing to over 1.4 mil­lion chil­dren in 10,770 schools across 10 states us­ing pre­ci­sion lo­gis­tics,” Dasa said.

Other char­i­ties also pro­vide lunches for stu­dents, but many schools them­selves are re­spon­si­ble for run­ning the scheme, es­pe­cially in re­mote, ru­ral ar­eas.

A na­tional gov­ern­ment re­port in 2010 found many such schools lack proper kitchens and ad­e­quate stor­age space, along with qual­i­fied cooks.

At the Vrin­da­van kitchen, food moves seam­lessly on chutes and con­veyor belts. Rice stored in si­los on the ter­race flows to an industrial tub for wash­ing be­fore head­ing into the pots on the bot­tom floor. Nearby a ma­chine cuts up tonnes of veg­eta­bles.

Once in steel con­tain­ers, the meals are packed into vans which nav­i­gate pot-holed roads to reach 2,000 gov­ern­ment-run schools in Ut­tar Pradesh’s Mathura re­gion.

The char­ity re­ceives sub­si­dized pro­duce and gov­ern­ment grants for its op­er­a­tions as well as cor­po­rate dona­tions, with each meal cost­ing nine ru­pees (14 cents) to make.

Dead Lizards and Cock­roaches

For many chil­dren in In­dia, where mal­nu­tri­tion re­mains a ma­jor prob­lem, free lunches are their only sub­stan­tial daily meal.

The gov­ern­ment scheme, which started na­tion­ally in 2001, is aimed at en­tic­ing par­tic­u­larly poor and vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren to at­tend class in­stead of lan­guish­ing at home hun­gry or help­ing their par­ents la­bor.

It has earned ap­plause in some states, but has also be­come the tar­get of cor­rup­tion scan­dals with lo­cal me­dia of­ten re­port­ing in­ci­dents of dead lizards, cock­roaches or worse found in meals.

Yamini Ai­yar, direc­tor of Ac­count­abil­ity Ini­tia­tive, a re­search group that tracks gov­ern­ment pro­grams, said the scheme was ham­pered by too many lay­ers of ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­sult­ing in poor co­or­di­na­tion and de­liv­ery.

Ai­yar, based in New Delhi, said it was also un­fair to bur­den al­ready- stretched schools with or­ga­niz­ing the meals.

“It’s i mpor­tant to al­low schools to do what they are sup­posed to do.”

Screw­ing up her face in dis­gust, teacher Prem Lata Saini re­mem­bers the food that used to be served at her school in Mathura be­fore the foun­da­tion stepped in.

“The food used to come from the vil­lage head’s house. Some­times it would be just some boiled chick­peas,” she said.

“But now the food is healthy and makes use of sea­sonal veg­eta­bles and soya prod­ucts, some­thing most par­ents are not able to af­ford around here.”

“What hap­pened in Bi­har was shock­ing but not sur­pris­ing,” she added.

57 mil. Mal­nour­ished Chil­dren

UNICEF es­ti­mates that 57 mil­lion chil­dren in In­dia are mal­nour­ished, a mis­er­able sce­nario for a coun­try that counts it­self as an eco­nomic power. For­mer Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh de­scribed mal­nu­tri­tion dur­ing his decade in power as In­dia’s “na­tional shame.”

At the brick- and- mud Chau­muah school in Mathura, scores of girls in khaki uni­forms sit cross­legged on floor mats once the gong sounds for lunch. Af­ter say­ing a prayer, they ea­gerly wait with their steel plates.

“There is hardly enough food ever in the house for all six of us. I like this food, it’s hot and tasty,” 12-year-old Anju Singh said, pol­ish­ing off her meal.

Anju said she spent her days af­ter school tak­ing care of her five younger sib­lings be­cause her ill mother was mostly bed-rid­den and “can’t cook or clean.”

The menu at the school changes daily and in­cludes roti with veg­etable curry and dif­fer­ent rice dishes, with dessert served on Satur­days as a treat.

Uday Mani Pa­tel, an Ut­tar Pradesh gov­ern­ment ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cer, said more non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions needed to take part in the scheme, tak­ing over from of­fi­cials and schools.

“This would change the en­tire im­age of the school mid­day meal in the coun­try,” he said.

Dasa said his foun­da­tion was train­ing other char­i­ties to set up their own large kitchens to pro­vide meals for the scheme.

“(But) more peo­ple must come for­ward.”


In this photo taken on May 19, In­dian school­girls eat lunch or­ga­nized by the non­profit Ak­shaya Pa­tra Foun­da­tion, at the Chau­muha Pri­mary School on the out­skirts of Vrin­da­van.

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