It is mid-noon on a warm Thursday and a blue bus can be seen winding its way through ceaseless Bangalore city traffic to Tasker Town, a bustling area in the heart of the metropolitan. The bus comes to a stop outside the colonial style building of Govt. Telugu High School as children rush out into the commotion of the city to greet its arrival. Two men, dressed in blue, jump out to unload its eagerly awaited contents: glistening steel containers filled with delicious rice and sambar, the Southern Indian staple food.
Everyday, at around 12 o’clock, Akshaya Patra’s blue bus arrives at the school delivering freshly cooked food for its more than 160 students. Everyday, it is greeted with the same enthusiastic smiles.
For Kenny and Erica Jones, however, this no everyday experience. Though the couple from America has travelled the world for years and been living in India for nearly 15 months now, they have never witnessed anything like this before. “It’s something else to see it in action,” says Erica, who came to fully understand Akshaya Patra’s work at a Search Marketing Summit held by the children’s non-profit, where industry leaders from around the world met to discuss the latest techniques and trends in internet marketing. Erica, one of the guest speakers at the Summit, with special expertise in video marketing, says she was amazed by the scale of the Foundation’s operations. “You feed lunch to more than 1.2 million hungry children around India. And I can’t believe you do it everyday!” she adds.
Kenny, who hosts the wildly popular ‘On Air with Kenny Jones’ morning show on Radio Indigo 91.9 FM, one of the leading English radio stations in the country, is surprised at how little it takes to actually feed a child for year. “Is it just US $11.50 did you say to sponsor a child for a year? Wow, that’s incredible,” he says.
As 12:30 approaches, a palpable restlessness permeates the classrooms. Outside, selected 7th standard students, the eldest in the school, are preparing for lunch time. They set the containers of rice, sambar and curd on a wooden bench in the cool shade of a tree in the school yard. They rinse the serving spoons and plates in preparation for meal time.
The lunch bell rings as students file outside in neat rows under the strict supervision of their Headmistress, Ms. Kusum.
“Many of the children come here from very distant areas in the city and they leave home early morning, a lot of times without any breakfast,” she says, “for them, this food is very essential. Sometimes both parents will be working and they don’t have time to prepare a meal in the morning. There is one boy here who is being raised by a single parent. If his mother falls ill, then it becomes very difficult for him to eat food. Who will cook? The average salary she may get for a month is around Rs. 1000, but in Bangalore it costs at least around Rs. 100 for a family to eat for a day. It becomes very difficult for people to make ends meet.”
However, the overall change has been positive over the years, says the headmistress. More children are attending school regularly and fewer are dropping out. “There are many opportunities these days that were not there before. To tell you the truth, these children are very bright and talented. They just need to be guided and helped in the right direction. That’s where schemes like the mid-day meal program are very helpful,” she adds.
The mid-day meal program was initiated by all State Governments of India in response to an order from the nation’s Supreme Court in November of 2001, which mandated that children in all government and government-aided primary schools across the country be provided with freshly cooked nutrition meals at lunch time. Today there are over 121 million children around the nation who are benefitting from the scheme, making it by far the largest such nutrition program in the world. The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which is in a public-private partnership with 8 State Governments to provide children with healthy, freshly cooked meals, directly impacts 1.2 million of them. The Foundation is currently in the 11th year of program implementation and has a mission to reach out to 5 million children by 2020. A quiet settles in the school yard as the students sit down to their mid-day meal. For these children at Govt. Telugu High School, the food provided means more than just a full stomach. It means they can concentrate on their afternoon classes free from the clutches of hunger; that even if they skipped breakfast, they can rest assured that at least in school, they will get one full meal.
For Kenny and Erica, it is another memorable experience on their travels around the world that they will always remember. “It is wonderful to see such good work,” says Erica.