India's school lunch program is internationally hailed as one of the most enduring social commitments though there are lot of critics who question the efficiency of the entire system. According to the avowed policies of Government of India (GOI), no child should remain hungry due to poverty and huge funds are earmarked regularly in the annual budgets for meeting the expenditure involved in supplying foods in schools and other institutions specifically for children and other vulnerable populations like pregnant women. Providing meals at the schools is supposed to have the added advantage of attracting young children to educational centers to achieve universal literacy and prevent alarming drop out rates. According to official statistics there are about 220 million children of school going age, 4-12 years but about 5% are left out because of many social and economic factors. Leaving out almost a million children from the human resource pool of the country cannot be justified under any governing system and it was hoped that providing good meals during the lunch time would increase the school enrollment significantly.
During early stages of applied nutrition programs in the country, there was preference for processed foods because of ease of handling and account keeping. The Energy Food "era" which covered a substantial portion of the student population could not last with many vested interests blaming the the quality and monotony of the dry product which were not "liked" by the beneficiaries and the hot food craze that started in Tamilnadu was touted as a better alternative though such a concept was fraught with logistical nightmares. The unclean environment in school facilities, shortage of clean water, necessity for cooking fuels and other input materials and the personnel need for cooking were all considered constraining factors. It was realized that mid-day school food program could also create local employment which made the policy makers to lean towards the "hot meal" proposition. With meager financial allocation per child the benefits derived were found to be not up to the expectation and soaring food inflation contributed further to this sense of inadequacy. An allocation of less than Rs 3 per child cannot be expected to provide sufficient calories, protein and other nutrients, let alone the desirable taste appreciated by the beneficiaries. This is where the help and cooperation of Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) with credibility and good track record was sought by GOI.
One of the most remarkable successes in the joint endeavor for providing school lunches was by the International Society for Krishna Conscience (ISKCON) which changed the way the program was being conceived in Delhi. If one can keep aside the religious or cult image of ISKCON, the track record of this NGO was spectacular after it was roped in as a partner by the government. Even there was an image make over when ISKCON floated a separate trust by name Food for Life Foundation to run the school feeding program. Its Akshaya Patra program, being run in seven states covers 6500 schools and 1 million children which of course is a small drop in the ocean. But it has shown the way how the program can be run on modern lines with quality and safety of foods supplied to the schools better than any thing the children have ever tasted in their life. Serving rice or roti, sambar or dal and curd unlimited, to provide at least 550 kCals in hot condition with steaming aroma emanating from the prepared foods, the program has already established its USP as far as children are concerned. Compare this with the GOI norm to provide only 360 kilo calories which cannot be expected to extinguish the hunger in the belly.
Another dimension to this remarkable endeavor is the technological break-through achieved by the organizers in revolutionizing the preparation technology and the 14 kitchens run by them are technological marvels. Each kitchen equipped with industrial steam generators, large mechanized vegetable cutters, huge pumps capable of transferring liquid foods like dal and sambar at mind boggling rate and the 3-level gravity based flow process, has capacity ranging from 50000 to 250000 meals a day. Though most handling is by mechanized systems, there is an employment content here with each kitchen having 150 to 300 workers on its roll. Remarkably some of these kitchens are even ISO certified while the Foundation is planing to engage consultants for quality and safety auditing on a regular basis in future. The hot products from these are delivered in stainless containers to the schools directly in specially designed vans to be served hot to the students in their own environment.
It is realized that such huge kitchens can serve only urban schools whereas thousands of schools in rural areas cannot benefit from such facilities. The decentralized kitchen concept now being tried out for supply of foods to beneficiaries numbering less than 5000 in large areas creates small scale cooking facilities near the schools run by women's Self Help Group, train the cooks on good manufacturing practices and inculcate accountability for supply of raw material inputs. If such a movement takes root, the astronomical investment made on this social transformation project could be considered well spent.
Involvement of ISKCON appears to be evoking some hostility amongst some critics who blame them for economic exploitation and even some court cases are pending in Karnataka where one of the politicians has been arraigned for defamation by ISKCON for making unsubstantiated allegations. On a critical look at the economics of the program it is seen that each meal prepared costs about Rs 4.68 and government budget provides only Rs 2.64, rest absorbed by the organizers raising donations from corporations and individuals all around the world. The vision on the part of ISKCON to reach a target of 5 million children is praise worthy and as long as they are accountable for the donations from the public as well as the government funds received as per country's laws, there should not be any objection to their mission. Probably more NGOs must come forward to create models like this to serve the future needs of the children of this country.