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Shridhar Venkat, CEO of the Akshaya Patra Foundation

By Katherine Curtiss and Divya Sooryakumar, International Education Policy Ed. M Candidates, Harvard Graduate School of Education

“Think about the last time you were hungry. How long did your hunger last and how did it make you feel?” said Shridhar Venkat, CEO of the Akshaya Patra Foundation, as he started his presentation by viscerally connecting the audience to the student beneficiaries of his foundation.

On November 5th, 2014, in an event co-hosted by the International Education Policy Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard South Asia Institute, Mr. Venkat discussed the work of the internationally lauded Akshaya Patra Foundation that provides healthy and nutritious mid-day meals to students in the government-run schools in India.

Hunger and malnourishment plague children across the country. With India home to 40% of the world’s malnourished children and 8.1 million out-of-school children, the Akshaya Patra Foundation’s mid-day meal intervention provides children enrolled in the government schools with at least one nutritionally sound meal per day.

This mid-day meal is not only often incentive enough for out-of-school children to enroll, but is also equally important for low-income enrolled students who cannot afford a mid-day meal. The foundation operates with a vision that “no child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.” Founded in 2000, the Foundation started serving 1,500 students in five schools in Karnataka and today serves 1.4 million students across 10 states. They are now aiming to feed 5 million students.

The mid-day meal scheme is an initiative of the Government of India. Started in 1995, the mid-day meal program was developed to “enhance enrollment, retention and attendance and simultaneously improving nutritional levels among children.” However due to a number of compounding factors, in many regions across the country, students were receiving varying degrees of their promised meals.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, using factory-level mass manufacturing techniques ensures quality and consistency in all the meals they provide. From rice cookers that prepare enough rice for 1,000 students in 15 minutes to chappati (flatbread)-making machines that produce 40,000 chappatis per hour, the scale and magnitude of the Akshaya Patra operations are truly awe-inspiring. The food is delivered fresh daily. The Foundation’s kitchens are centralized across the states approximately 30-50 miles away from the schools they serve.

At the seminar, Mr. Venkat laughingly told the group that the Foundation actually has two additional goals: to feed the child till the child says “enough” and to have the children licking their fingers because the food is so tasty – a sign of a truly excellent meal. Part of the secret is to cater the meals to the local palateNorth Indian students get to eat their beloved chappatis and their South Indian counterparts are properly satiated with a rice-based meal.

After a stirring presentation, Mr. Venkat opened up the floor to questions from the audience. A number of the audience members were interested to learn how the Akshaya Patra Foundation so efficiently provided their services and scaled their model. Mr. Venkat shared that the “DNA” of the organization is rather simple: “It is the heart of an NGO, infused with corporate culture”. He also attributed much of the success of the organization to the people who make-up the organization. He stated not only are they motivated but also are “hungry for scale”.

Mr. Venkat’s presentation was an important reminder of the multiple factors that comprise a quality education and the all-too salient intersection of health and education.  He also shared the stories of multiple students whose life trajectories had been dramatically changed due to the consistent nutritional meals provided by the Akshaya Patra Foundation.

By breaking the cycle of poverty through a simple meal, Mr. Venkat shared a personal hope that one day “those whom the Akshaya Patra Foundation feeds will come back and feed the rest of the India.”