The Power of one Meal

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Imagine a new-born child, the latest addition to a family of 5, fresh with the hope of a new beginning. She announces her arrival into the world with her first breath, fiercely staking her claim to life, much to the joy of her parents. Her very birth is a miracle.

Being born in a marginalized section of society, chances are high that before she has even begun on this journey of life, she will have to overcome many challenges.  Of every thousand live births in India, she may be one of the 69 children who will not grow to see their 5th birthday. In fact, being born in a marginalized section of society, she is probably one of the 43% of under 5 children in the country who are either moderately or severely underweight[1]. Her mother herself is weak from the efforts of childbirth.

Her parents take her home to their small shack, shining with happiness, like all new parents. As her father leaves for his job at a nearby construction site, her mother settles in for a typical day. She cleans and cooks for her 3 other children and sends them to school. Now the rest of her day really begins. She must start her work making cotton wicks for oil lamps. Like the rest of the 42% of India’s population, she and her family must survive on less than $1.25 (approx. Rs. 57) a day[2]. The addition of a new member means there is an added strain on their meager resources.  As she works through the hours, she must also take care of their baby girl.

The day wears on as she juggles motherhood with her job, growing more and more hungry as the time goes by. But there is not enough food for two proper meals in a day, much less three, and she must carry on until the evening. She thinks of the future of her children, dreams of what they could become in the future.

The dipping sun heralds the end of the day and she is surprised to see her husband return early from work. It is only 7:30 in the evening and he is already back. There is a reason for this. A reason that has nothing to do with them; it has gushed down from the wealthiest countries in the world, gathering momentum in its wake, wreaking the greatest havoc to the most vulnerable. The global economic crisis has reached their front step. And her husband has lost his job.

What will the family do now? Like 34% of the country’s over-15 population, both husband and wife can neither read nor write[3]. With less than 4 years of schooling, the new father’s chances of finding another job are slim in such bleak economic conditions. How will he keep his children in school now? More importantly, how will he even provide food for them? What will be the fate of their new born baby girl?

This may be an imaginary situation, but to thousands of fathers and mothers across the country, it is a reality. The fate of this baby girl is the fate of many. There is one way out of this grip of poverty: education, but how can they afford to even think of education when there is not enough for food? Every basic amenity is a luxury to the hungry, because hunger has a way of occupying the mind unlike anything else.
A person might ask: how can we help the family? If we posed that question to the mother or father, they might answer simply, “Help my child, and you will have helped me.”

To those of us who have the benefit of Fate’s kindness, one full meal a day may seem like nothing. But to others, especially children, to whom Fortune has not been so kind, it is the difference between poverty and prosperity. It means a full stomach and an invigorated mind that can concentrate on learning and growing, rather than trying to find the next meal. It means there is a chance at an education and a future.

Akshaya Patra provides that meal to over 1.2 million underprivileged children every school day. It may seem like nothing, but to thousands of parents across India, it means that the joy of their lives, their children, get to eat well and grow healthy. And dare to dream of a brighter tomorrow.


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Wonder what Akshaya Patra has in store for the future…

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7:00 AM I slipped into a pair of oversized slippers, tucked my hair into a shower cap, and stepped into the hot and steamy kitchen, where human-sized cauldrons full of rice and sambhar were brewing. On my right, several large metal baskets were being filled with the exact same quantity of rice at the simple press of a button. Workers carried these containers and placed them under a row of faucets, where pressurized water filled the bowls and cleansed the rice. I turned back around to see water gush out from the bottom of the cauldrons. Clearly, the rice was being drained and it was ready to be packed.

India has double the rate of malnutrition of sub-Saharan Africa. Indian children enlist in menial jobs just so they can earn enough money to have one solid meal a day. As a result, about 13.5 million children in India do not attend school.

7:15 AM An aromatic smell was coming from the room on my right. I followed the smell into the area next door and my mouth salivated at the sight of a large bath full of sambhar with metal pipes protruding outwards from it. Vast amounts of sambhar emerged from the pipes and drained perfectly into steel pots below. I looked back up at the large bath and there were almost no traces of sambhar left. The steel pots sat on a conveyor belt and I tracked the containers as they moved into a room on the left. I watched in amazement as the belt transported dozens of tightly packed stainless steel vessels to custom-built Akshaya Patra trucks.

7:30 AM I looked at the clock on my wrist and the large hand was close to the “6.” The trucks had just revved their engines and started to drive away. They were on route to schools within 50 kilometers of the kitchen with enough food for 5,000 children packed in the back of their vehicles. Inside the kitchen, the workers acted in a mechanized fashion to swiftly move the pots and steam-clean every inch of the kitchen. Usha (an Akshaya Patra representative) then escorted me outside, and as we walked towards the dining hall she started telling me about the intelligently engineered kitchens.

India has double the rate of malnutrition of sub-Saharan Africa. Indian children enlist in menial jobs just so they can earn enough money to have one solid meal a day. As a result, about 13.5 million children in India do not attend school. Numerous studies have shown that education is the single most powerful factor that can take an entire family out of the poverty cycle, and within one generation, education can significantly improve one’s quality of life.

Akshaya Patra helps underprivileged children by serving one healthy, balanced mid-day meal at school and thus incentivizes children to continue their education. Akshaya Patra has become the largest mid-day meal program in the world and currently serves food to about 1.2 million children in India everyday.

I think it is truly incredible how just Akshaya Patra has such widespread impact on many different areas of society, such as health, education, gender inequality, and poverty, with just one solution- serving mid-day meals to school children. The government schools have measured Akshaya Patra’s impact and they have seen an increase in school enrollment, an increase in attendance, an increase in school performance, and a reduction in dropout rates. Additionally, malnutrition has decreased and socialization among all social castes has increased..

I visited on a Tuesday morning and tasted the mouth-watering khichidi, sabzi, and sambhar that would be served to the school children later that day. It was so tasty that I asked for more and more servings. I think it is absolutely amazing how Akshaya Patra has utilized technology to consistently provide such delicious and nutritious food to starving children. Now, I wonder what Akshaya Patra has in store for the future…

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