Akshaya Patra has been serving hot, nutritious food to school-going children as 'Mid-Day Meals' for two decades, but the Covid-19 pandemic led to schools shutting down.
The organisation, therefore, had two options before it — the easy one, to shut its operation, and the difficult one, to continue to provide the service despite the odds. Being true to its ethos, it chose the latter.
The situation, however, was not new for Akshaya Patra, which, as a member of the National Disaster Recovery Centre, has come forward to help during many disaster relief programmes, including the Nepal earthquake.
“We realised that a large set up like Akshaya Patra should be used for food relief”, says CEO Shridhar Venkat.
The organisation in no time temporarily changed its strategy from ‘Food for Education’ to ‘Food for Relief’. In the last 11 months, Akshaya Patra, with its sister organisations, has fed about 140 million servings to vulnerable communities like daily wage earners, construction labourers, industrial workers, unemployed people, etc.
The government also joined hands with the organisation which expanded its coverage to 18 states and two union territories. Akshaya Patra was also cautious about maintaining safety and hygiene, especially during Covid-19 times, so a quality team was put in service and workers were trained through virtual interactions and on-ground sessions.
“Hand sanitisation, and social distancing protocols were followed; security guards were assigned the task of screening employees and volunteers; face masks, hair nets, and hand gloves were made compulsory”, Venkat says of the Covid-19 experience, while talking to Swarajya on phone.
He also highlighted the pilot partnership with Microsoft and Accenture “to come up with artificial intelligence-based intervention to run a kitchen during Covid pandemic” which was implemented in its Jigni Kitchen.
Safety protocols were ensured using artificial intelligence, internet based initiatives, among others.
Venkat believes that “private companies in our country are conscious of their responsibility.”
Many private companies reached out to Akshaya Patra because the organisation has earned recognition with two decades of service and together, they could achieve the milestone of 140 million servings.
While the focus was on Covid-19 relief, the organisation didn’t forget its responsibility towards the school-going children. As the children were at home, Akshaya Patra was not needed, to provide cooked food, and instead, it came up with the concept of ‘Happiness Kit’ which consists of 20-21 days ration and hygiene and sanitation-related products.
The organisation reached out to the beneficiaries by incorporating technologies like One Time Password (OTP).
The beneficiaries came and showed the OTP to collect the Happiness Kits, avoiding misuse or leakage.
Food relief through Happiness Kits was distributed across 18 states and two union territories.
While schools in some states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, etc are reopening, Akshaya Patra has reached 10 per cent of its pre-Covid servings and is providing 1.8 lakh cooked meals every day.
They are also ensuring safety protocols by training school staff and volunteers for the ‘new normal’.
Akshaya Patra is soon going to cross the 4-billion-meals-served mark, but at the heart of it remains their belief of “Anna daan is Shreshtha daan”.
Two hundred ISKCON devotees are part of the 8,000 workforce which works for fundraising, kitchen management etc. and while being a secular organisation, Akshaya Patra doesn’t forget its Dharmic inspirations.
Venkat likes to call Akshaya Patra as “a confluence of missionary spirit and professionalism.”
While being focussed on the centralised kitchen system, the organisation is also experimenting with some alternatives such as mobile kitchens and community kitchens.
Akshaya Patra worked with a person, who had designed army vehicles, for its ‘Kitchen on Wheels (mobile kitchen)’.
This vehicle has the capacity to cook 5,000 meals in two hours, explains Venkat.
Nayagarh in Odisha and Baran in Rajasthan also feature a decentralised kitchen of Akshaya Patra.
The organisation currently has 53 kitchens across 12 states and two union territories. Akshaya Patra’s ‘Version 2.0’ looks forward to going deeper into the communities, creating a greater community impact, leveraging centralised kitchens in combination with community kitchens and smaller kitchens.
When asked about his personal experience, Venkat said that no words can convey the happiness he gets while working for children of the country. Having worked in the corporate sector for 15 years and now having completed 15 years at Akshaya Patra, he says, “It has been an immensely satisfying experience for me.”
“I look forward to coming to work every day. When you see happy children, happy beneficiaries, you feel you have got purpose in life. Akshaya Patra transformed me as a person with its core of compassion and empathy. I look forward to serving here in the coming years as well”, the CEO shares.
He describes Akshaya Patra as a 'person' whose mind is of a corporate and a heart filled with compassion.
He also thanks its missionaries, professionals, supporters in the government , public-private partnerships, donors, individual supporters and the media — all of which, he says, have helped the organisation grow.
“Simplicity is the key to scaling up” — this is the first lesson that Venkat learnt in his journey of 15 years with Akshaya Patra.
“If you make complicated structures and procedures, it is difficult to scale up”, he explains.
The second lesson is “focus”, where the organisation is focused on just one mission of ensuring hot, nutritious and safe food.
Venkat points out the third lesson — that is “usage of innovation”. He cites the example of the roti-making machine, which could make 1,000 rotis per hour when it was started, but through innovations can now scale up to 40,000 rotis per hour and can further hit 50,000 rotis per hour.
He believes that in India, a problem can be solved only when one can solve it at a scale.
Akshaya Patra is still exploring ways to support school infrastructure, school-based kitchens, smaller kitchens and wants to enhance the government’s initiatives through its efforts.
Akshaya Patra has also faced many controversies around the food it serves, but Venkat believes that with a clear conscience, they will continue doing what they believe is right.
At the same time, he doesn’t disregard his critics and, instead, gives them space to come up with alternative solutions.
He also invites others to work with Akshaya Patra or as a different entity to fight against hunger. “Our focus is on nutrition delivery and as long as Akshaya Patra is able to do that, our purpose is served”, Venkat asserts with contentment.
Nishtha Anushree is Senior Sub-editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @nishthaanushree.
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