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Vaikuntha Hill Kitchen from a volunteer’s perspective

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The Akshaya Patra Foundation is rooted in a story of compassion. Gazing outside of a window one day in a village near Calcutta, A.C. Bhaktidevanta Swami Prabhupada witnessed a group of young children fighting with street dogs over food. This heartbreaking incident engendered a determination that would forever impact the world. Swami Prabhupada’s beliefs went against the passivity and moral turpitude that pervaded India during that time as he took an active stance in feeding India’s children by founding the Akshaya Patra Foudation. The volunteers, staff, and management of the Akshaya Patra foundation work tirelessly to fulfill this vision and embody single-mindedness and passion in serving the core belief of the foundation: “No child within a radius of ten miles from an Akshaya Patra kitchen should go hungry.”

Vaikuntha-Kitchen-Review-Varun-Singh_0The heart of the foundation, which boasts of 19 centralized kitchens across nine states in India, lies in the beautiful city of Bangalore. Born and raised in the United States, I came face to face with the true spirit of India when I set foot in the boundaries of the Akshaya Patra Vaikuntha Hill kitchen, one of the two kitchens in Bangalore. I had the pleasure of speaking with different levels of staff and management to learn about what it takes to provide food to over 600 schools.

I interviewed Mr. Muthuprasanna, a human resources representative at the Akshaya Patra Vaikuntha Hill kitchen, to gain a clear picture of how the kitchen functions to meet its goals:

Question: What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?
Answer: Working for a cause that is oriented towards development. There are a group of people whose intention is working for a mission from the ground level up. We all align together for a common goal and the single-mindedness of making children smile is the most satisfying thing in our day.

Question: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Answer: Educating the employees. Many come from a rural and less-educated background and training employees to meet safety standards is time-consuming but rewarding. We go out of our way to ensure that all levels of staff feel part of the family by offering a spoken English class and computer course within the foundation’s boundaries. They have not gained such opportunities in their villages, and many staff workers report that working with the foundation is incredibly fulfilling.

Question: What is the organization’s ultimate goal?
Answer: To ensure that no child in India is deprived of education because of hunger. I personally see Akshaya Patra as a means for children to rise up and involve in society. These children will eventually build our nation’s economy and are our future.

Question: What makes the kitchen run so efficiently?
Answer: Our employees are extremely passionate about working. Delivering meals to feed children as they run to the Akshaya Patra vans offers happiness to both the workers and the children they feed.

Question: How does your department, human resources, play a role in the kitchen?
Answer: Human resources department recruits people from villages around Bangalore area, trains them, and makes sure that all standards and regulations are met. The foundation continuously engages its staff with get-togethers, birthday celebrations, and other events that make the foundation come together and spend some good time with each other. The Vaikuntha Hill kitchen has succeeded in covering 600 schools, ensuring that virtually every school-going child in this area can study and explore his or her individual interests without the burden of hunger.

Question: Is Akshaya Patra’s role limited to serving meals?
Answer: The foundation expands to teaching life skills to the schoolchildren. It offers motivational exercises and encourages children to pursue their individual talents and overcome poverty.

Question: What makes the Vaikuntha Hill kitchen unique?
Answer: This is the first modern kitchen, or second-generation kitchen, in the entire nation that employs highly mechanized technologies. We have implemented highly-specialized manufacturing processes and biogas fuelling. This basically means that the waste of the kitchen is in turn used to power our cooking apparatuses. This makes sure that nothing is wasted. He went on to speak about India’s development in terms of the foundation.

Question: What is working with Arun Kumar like?
Answer: He is a young leader and takes care of everyone by ensuring quality control, overseeing operations, and performing the role of an ambassador for the group. He is an incredibly balanced and effective leader. He connects with everyone, from the kitchen floor staff to his direct staff and executives. He connects with each of them individually.

Question: What is Akshaya Patra’s role in government schools?
Answer: Government schools primarily educate children belonging to the labour class, who are below poverty line. By having a midday meal, they are able to enjoy hearty nutrition and are able to concentrate on their education and other physical activities. It is a profound benefit to the nation and to the world.

Question: What are Akshaya Patra’s goals for the future? Are they realistic?
Answer: Our mission is to serve 5 million school children by 2020, and this is absolutely realistic. Many organizations in the private and public sector are pitching in to meet our goal, as is evident from the new kitchens that are opening up in U.P. and Rajasthan. Requests pour in from different states in India like Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, to start new kitchens. I am certain that the joint efforts of our government and private sector will allow us to meet our goal.

Question: What is your family’s attitude towards your work with Akshaya Patra?
Answer: My family is proud of the work I do with the organisation. They enjoy participating in Akshaya Patra, and believe that we are directly part of developing our country in education. Nothing is more fulfilling than the work I do with the organization.

I was curious as to how such a productive kitchen was managed and kept at optimum efficiency. Mr. Arun Kumar, the manager of the Vaikuntha Hil kitchen, told me his story as well as how he handles the challenging task of managing the kitchen:

Question: What is the most rewarding part of working with Akshaya Patra?
Answer: The cause is 90% of the reasons that make me come to work every day. While I was in school, I was very curious about serving food with Akshaya Patra. I learned more from Akshaya Patra than my studies. First, I started coming twice a month and eventually, once a week. I came here to serve children. After completing my degree, I came to work here. This is the fourth year of my journey, and I love coming here every day because I see the happy faces of the children we feed.

Question: How does the Akshaya Patra Vaikuntha Hill kitchen function as a family?
Answer: They are devoted to our cause. We don’t treat them as employees, but as friends. I don’t sit from my office and tell them things to do. I go out and understand the nature of the work, and then help them meet their directive. One to one interaction is very important. Our staff feels comfortable in communicating with management. We motivate them with weekly meetings and employee engagements every month that helps them relax and find enjoyment. The daily gitas and bhajans we sing contribute to their positivity. As most workers come from a poor background, we go out of our way to provide a good facility for them to stay, a good meal for them to eat, and a comfortable working environment. We have fulfilled these needs.

Question: Who pays for Akshaya Patra meals?
Answer: The government subsidy only covers 60% of the meal cost. We need corporate funding to cover the remaining 40% as well as additional funding for maintenance, employees and food vans.

Question: How stable are donations?
Answer: Donations depend on the economic cycle. Businesses that do well donate, but in poor economic times, we bear the burden of funding on our own.

Question: Is Akshaya Patra a year round effort?
Answer: Leaving Sundays and government holidays, we always have to cook and feed all 600 schools.

Question: Though Akshaya Patra finds its roots in ISKCON, is it true that it is a secular organization?
Answer: Akshaya Patra does not discriminate based on religion, and we have employees from all religious backgrounds. Here at Akshaya Patra, we have a strictly secular policy. Donors from all walks of life contribute to the cause. Akshaya Patra has broken all barriers of social inequity that have existed in schools. Social barriers were playing a major role in government schools, but now there are none. That is the reason we insist on employing the uniform in all schools. School is the right place for raising such issues as social equality. Social groups in schools no longer reflect socioeconomic classes.

Finally, I interviewed Mr. Vinay Kumar, the general manager of the foundation’s kitchen operations:

Question: What is the motivating factor behind your work with Akshaya Patra?
Answer: The fact that we are doing something for the future of India.

Question: How did you get started with Akshaya Patra?
Answer: I was working as a chartered accountant in some companies, and then moved from company to company. Eventually, I moved joined Akshaya Patra’s IT department to manage accounts and material accounting. I joined it to implement an IT department and then took on a new role in operations. Today marks my fifth year working with Akshaya Patra.

Question: What do you see in Akshaya Patra’s future?
Answer: More children, more kitchens, and elimination of malnutrition. We serve 1.5 million kids and we hope the economic status of the country improves. If there is no dropout because of hunger, we will say we have done our job.

Question: Do you feel as if the job is done?
Answer: Why, we have just begun-we need to see where the need is. We need to find rural areas, and see the beneficiaries getting into working life and eventually contribute as donors or employees. They benefitted from the program, and I am sure they would have the heart to give back.

Question: Has the dropout rate decreased?
Answer: A consulting international surveying organization has recorded a significant decrease of dropout rates and increase in attendance. We cannot accredit this statistical change completely to Akshaya Patra, but a large majority is due to the organisation’s work.

Question: Are Akshaya Patra and ISKCON two different entities?
Answer: Yes. They have registered as two different organisations. Akshaya Patra is a public program. This is truly a secular organisation. We feed convents and schools of all other religious denominations as well.

Question: What are the future plans of Akshaya Patra?
Answer: We plan to focus more on improving further, the quality of meals by using optimised resources available to us.

Question: Is Akshaya Patra known as a national initiative?
Answer: We expect the public in general to recognise Akshaya Patra as a national initiative. We grew from a small organization to a state organization to a national initiative. We need this to be looked at by the public as a revolution, the gap between the rich and poor needs to shorten. The problem of child hunger cannot persist for 50 years. We need to end child hunger.

I was amazed to see Akshaya Patra’s effect in countless schools. As I visited and helped serve food in these schools, I saw appreciation in the eyes of the students who have all been given hearty meals. These children run to the Akshaya Patra vans, which contain sambar, rice, and curds. The headmasters are always grateful to Akshaya Patra representatives who come and visit. They were more than happy to allow me the opportunity to speak to the students. Many children spoke to me about their ambitions of becoming doctors, engineers, and police inspectors. Akshaya Patra will ensure that their needs are met while they pursue these goals. If not for Akshaya Patra, most of these children would be forced into child labour to feed themselves. The Akshaya Patra Foundation will persevere, carrying unforgotten compassion to eventually ensure an end to child hunger in all of India.

More people need to recognize the tremendous good that Akshaya Patra has been able to achieve and that I have witnessed firsthand. Donating to Akshaya Patra directly facilitates the elimination of child hunger and the promotion of education, ensuring a brighter future for those students and a better world.

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Akshaya Patra empowering rural women

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The Akshaya Patra Foundation implements the mid-day meal programme in more than 9000 Government schools across 19 locations of 9 states. Its operation is spread across urban, semi-urban and rural settings. Every day the Foundation serves mid-day meal to 1.3 million children across India. To keep up the stability and continuity of providing food to the needy children it employs two kinds of kitchen set up- Centralized kitchen and Decentralized kitchen. Centralized kitchens are technologically equipped and are feasible for urban and semi-urban setting whereas Decentralized kitchens act as a vein to intervene into the rural and remote locations like Baran and Nayagarh.

Akshaya-Patra-empowering-rural-women_1The Decentralized kitchens of Akshaya Patra employ local women as kitchen staff. The women self-help group are engaged in the entire kitchen process and earn a regular livelihood.  This has helped in empowering the rural women of Rajasthan and Odisha. Akshaya Patra provides mid-day meals to more than 14,000 children in over 150 Government schools in the district of Baran. Here are a few anecdotes of women employees of Akshaya Patra’s decentralized kitchen in Baran district of Rajasthan.

Prem Bai is a resident of Baansthuli village of Baran district in Rajasthan. Six years ago she got employed by Akshaya Patra as a cook in its decentralized kitchen at Baran. Today, she cooks food for more than 100 students. A mother of three children she says, “I studied until Class II when I was young. That’s all, but I always wanted to study more.” She goes on to say, “When I am done with cooking and distribution of meals, I sit near the class and learn what the teacher teaches. Back home I read my children’s books. Today I can read a newspaper without any difficult”.

Kanti Bai and Lalita Bai of the adjacent Rampuriya village, also earn their livelihood as employees of Akshaya Patra’s decentralized kitchen. They cook mid-day meal for the students of a nearby school. Kanti Bai adds that they also receive lessons from the Foundation on basic sanitation and hygiene. She says, “We now insist that children also wash hands before eating”.

In continuation, R. Govinda Dasa, Unit President, The Akshaya Patra Foundation, Rajasthan said, “We have decentralized kitchens in the tribal regions of Odisha, Rajasthan and Mathura district where we employ women to cook the locally available food”.


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