The COVID-19 crisis has hit the world hard, especially the poor and destitute are left to fetch everything for themselves. Situation turned more desperate as the authorities imposed a strict lockdown as a combat measure against the Covid-19. At this hour of need, many organisations stepped up and coordinated with State Governments & District Administration to provide relief to the needy. They offered free food to thousands of people across the nation. Akshaya Patra is providing meal or packed grocery kits to the poor and destitute and other low-income groups of the society including daily wage workers, migrant labourers, construction site workers, etc. Presently, Akshaya Patra claims that it is providing food relief many state viz., Rajasthan, Karnataka, Telangana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, NCR, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand ,Tripura, West Bengal, Punjab, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh. It operates 57 kitchens across 13 States and 1 Union Territory of India. Its centralised kitchens have the capacity to cook up to 100,000 meals. In an exclusive conversation with the Financial Express Online Shridhar Venkat, CEO of Akshaya Patra talked about the work they are doing, CSR initiatives, challenges ahead of them and more. Excerpts:
2020 was predominantly marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented event that compounded various socio-economic issues and affected people from all walks of life—especially the vulnerable communities. In these difficult times, the corporate sector proactively stepped up to help those in need. Companies donated a bulk of their CSR budget to relief activities. In fact, several large companies went beyond the prescribed CSR budget and pledged their resources towards relief efforts.
In the post-COVID world, the role of CSR will become even more important. The CSR spend to address issues like poverty, hunger, illiteracy, etc., has seen steady growth in the last few years. The pandemic has already reversed years of progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Considering the criticality of the situation, it will be of immense help if corporates take a stock of predictions about the post-COVID scenario and redefine the scope of their CSR funding initiatives.
How & what kind of funds have gone into this COVID feeding program & how is the support of donors & funds compared to the first wave & now the second wave? Who are the major donors?
Over the last 14 months, we have been working with the Government and donors to mitigate the hunger crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The continued support of our donors to undertake the relief feeding programme has validated our belief that we are stronger together. We received donations from corporates, the public sector, and individuals, with all our stakeholders proactively coming forward to support our efforts. Other than grants, employee payroll giving and online giving through Individual Social Responsibility (ISR) also contributed a significant sum last year.
With the pandemic situation evolving, the focus has shifted from hunger to malnutrition. We are striving to ensure that the vulnerable populations have continued access to food and nutrition. For instance, we are reaching out to children across the length and breadth of our nation and providing them Happiness Kits comprising of grocery, hygiene products, and educational supplies to enhance their nutritional level, boost their immunity and address the knowledge gap. The support of our donors has helped in ensuring continuity that is integral to this endeavour.
Besides relief feeding, we are also conducting a pilot programme to vaccinate the parents and family members of our beneficiaries in association with our donors. We are confident that we will be able to scale this vaccination drive and cover a significant portion of the population in the next few months.
Our mission is to get our children ‘Back to Schools’ and we have all the co-operation and commitment from our donor family.
How did the organization transform from mid-day meal providers to disaster – relief feeding program? How are you managing to feed the core beneficiaries of Akshaya Patra?
As the implementing partner of the Government’s flagship school feeding programme, the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme, Akshaya Patra serves over 1.8 million children in 13 states and one union territory (UT) every school day. The programme is a result of the synergetic efforts of all the stakeholders involved—the Central Government, State Governments, corporate partners, individual donors, school authorities, volunteers and our staff. The collective efforts of all these stakeholders help ensure that children do not have to choose between education and food. Today, as we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are drawing upon the same synergetic efforts to provide nutrition support to children and communities. Our strategic investment in infrastructure and resource mobilisation over the last 20 years has added to the efficiency and effectiveness of both, the school feeding programme and relief feeding initiatives.
As for our core beneficiaries—the children, school closures due to the pandemic has deprived them of education as well as mid-day meals. We have been providing essential groceries kits to families from vulnerable communities. Furthermore, we have started the Happiness Kits initiative for MDM beneficiaries to take learning and nutrition to their doorstep. These kits focus on the health and education of children, and contain dry ration as well as hygiene products and stationery with activity workbooks.
During the Covid-19, Akshaya Patra has been serving meals to vulnerable sections of the country since early 2020. Can you briefly describe the impact that this initiative has had and what are/were the challenges faced?
A pandemic outbreak is often accompanied by widespread food insecurity due to disruptions in supply chains. In such a situation, relief feeding becomes a vital component of subsequent humanitarian efforts. Mindful of this crucial role of relief feeding, we have been using our resources to extend food relief to vulnerable populations in 19 states and one UT across the country. We have so far served over 129 million meals in the form of cooked food, essential groceries kits and Happiness Kits. In doing so, we have been able to actively contribute to the food and nutrition security of vulnerable populations. Our network of kitchens across the country has enabled us to provide aid to wider demography across urban, rural and peri-urban areas over the last 14 months. Through these efforts, we have been able to uphold people’s Right to Food during an emergency.
When we started last March, we experienced several challenges. Supply chains were disrupted due to the pandemic and containment measures to curb the outbreak. The movement of vehicles was difficult, which, in turn, made it difficult to source raw material and non-food essentials. However, timely permissions and authorisations from the administration and the support of our suppliers helped us address these challenges. When the number of locations we served increased, our manpower requirements also increased. Several volunteering groups and individuals selflessly came forward to help meet our requirement. While challenges were many as we had anticipated, we found solutions for them in one form or the other and continued our efforts.
How is the food prepared on a war footing mechanism & What are the safety precautions implemented during this COVID while executing the feeding program?
Our network of kitchens with staff trained to operate in emergencies is key to our relief feeding initiative. Food is cooked at our kitchens and transported to the relief feeding centres where it is then served to those in need. Besides cooked meals, we have also implemented some need-based solutions. These include the distribution of essential groceries kits with dry ration for 42/28 meals, Happiness Kits for MDM beneficiaries with dry ration for 20 meals and educational supplies, and snacks kits for migrants returning home on trains. In addition to our kitchens, we also set up makeshift packaging centres to pack essentials groceries kits and Happiness Kits.
We have always strived to maintain the highest standards of safety and hygiene in all our processes. We are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. We understand the urgency as well as the criticality of the initiative. To ensure food safety and the safety of our staff and volunteers, we have adopted stricter hygiene and safety compliance norms in our kitchens. Our staff mandatorily wears the necessary protective gear, such as masks and gloves, and maintains social distancing at all times. Their temperature is also checked when they enter the premises and at regular intervals. Such measures have helped us ensure the safety of the food prepared as well as everyone involved in the preparation process.
Akshaya Patra works on a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) model. Can you briefly describe what the model is and how you are benefited from this model?
Over the years, the collaboration between the Government, Akshaya Patra and donors for the Mid-Day Meal Programme has become one of the much-appreciated partnerships in the development sector. It has demonstrated how the much-touted Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model, which is quite popular in the infrastructure sector, can be successfully implemented for social good.
We have collaborated with the Central Government, State Governments, civic bodies, and corporate entities and their philanthropic arms to implement the school feeding programme. On its part, the Government provides subsidies and grants permission to raise funds from within the country and abroad. Our contribution includes investment in manpower, distribution of meals, food safety and hygiene, automation, setting up of kitchens, etc., which is met through fundraising.
In essence, we have successfully harnessed the might of the PPP model by bringing together various public and private sector entities to address a social cause on a massive scale, feeding more than 1.8 million school children across the country, providing them nutritious mid-day meals as an incentive to come to school.
What are the future plans & how close are you to your mission of feeding 5 million children by 2025?
Our mission is to feed 5 million children every school day. We are working towards the same in association with the Government and donors. We are in talks with various State Governments to start new kitchens, which will enable us to reach more children. We will also try to enhance the MDM Programme through need-based solutions. Such innovative measures will be particularly important in the post-COVID era with hunger and malnutrition compounding due to the pandemic.
We have started a breakfast programme on a pilot basis in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. We will look into the feasibility of extending it to other locations. It is a well-known fact that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It will play a crucial role in addressing short-term hunger among beneficiary children and improve their concentration in the classroom, thus enhancing their academic performance.
We have also designed and implemented initiatives that go beyond the meals to ensure that children have a conducive environment at schools, nurture their talent and provide financial aid. These include the school rejuvenation project, Giving Every Dream a Chance mentorship initiative and the AVSAR scholarship programme. These initiatives are clubbed together under the Foundation’s National Endeavour for Student Transformation (NEST).
We are on our way to reach the 4 billionth cumulative meal milestone. The milestone will be a significant achievement, validating the efforts of all the people who work every day to address hunger among children and communities.
What is your opinion of the Mission Poshan 2.0 initiative launched by the government in February 2021 in order to improve nutritional outcomes? What role can Akshaya Patra play towards ensuring that nutritional outcomes across the country as mentioned in the initiative show an improvement?
Mission Poshan 2.0 is a welcome move that will play a crucial role in helping us address the issue of malnutrition through an integrated approach. It has been launched at a crucial moment with several experts fearing that the malnutrition crisis will worsen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside the MDM Programme, Akshaya Patra also serves as the implementing partner of the ICDS Anganwadi feeding initiative. We have always strived to work with the Ministry of Women and Child Development – Government of India, on its various developmental programmes and initiatives. We will continue working with them to focus on food and nutrition security for children and communities across the country.