Shridhar Venkat, Chief Executive Officer of The Akshaya Patra Foundation, talked to The Sunday Guardian about the world’s largest school midday meal programme that feeds over 1.8 million children. Excerpts:

Q: From the corporate world that is driven by the market economy and the laws of profiteering, to the world of non-profit endeavours, tell us about the reasons which motivated you to move to The Akshaya Patra Foundation?

A: In one sentence, I could say my search for “Existential Purpose” made me quit a corporate career and join Akshaya Patra. I could identify with the vision of the Akshaya Patra Foundation—“No Child in India will be deprived of education because of hunger”. When I met our chairman, Madhupandit Dasa, he asked me, “Why I am building empires for others, I should rather build them for the children.” This was like a calling for me and I decided to make a move. Though Akshaya Patra is a not-for-profit organisation, we have processes and systems similar to a profit-making organisation. If I were to describe Akshaya Patra, it’s a person whose mind is of a corporate and whose heart is of a compassionate not-for-profit.

Q: Tell us more about the motto “No child in India will be deprived of education because of hunger”.

A: The vision of Akshaya Patra Foundation “No child in India will be deprived of education because of hunger” is attributed to twin objectives: (1) Ending classroom hunger, by providing nutritious mid-day meals in government schools and government-aided schools and (2)  Make basic education accessible, encourage more and more children to enrol in schools. A hot meal becomes an incentive for children to attend school and prevent dropouts.

We feel honoured to call ourselves the world’s largest not-for-profit run mid-day meal programme, serving wholesome food every school day to 1.8 million children in 19,039 schools through 52 kitchens spread across 12 states and 2 union territories. Incidentally, by February 2019, we had served the 3 billionth meal. Our mission is to feed “5 million children daily by 2025”.

Q: How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your endeavours to reach the needy?

A: The unravelling of the global pandemic sent shockwaves across the globe. But for us, it presented an opportunity to save lives, feed the hungry, and mitigate miseries of distressed millions. According to the International Labour Organization, as a result of Covid-19, and resultant job losses impacting an estimated 400 million informal sector workers in India, these vulnerable groups are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis, and being deprived of food. So, for daily wage earners, there were only bad times ahead, but we hoped to make a difference in their lives.

At the Akshaya Patra Foundation, we have been feeding billions for the last 20 years. However, during the pandemic, we repurposed our infrastructure and started feeding the needy and economically challenged. The tipping point for us was when Fortune 500 companies led by Adobe Foundation, Amazon, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, MUFG, Texas Instruments contributed generously towards this worthy cause. Over the last four-and-a-half months, we have served 74 million servings across the country and in Shramik trains too. Recently, a group of school children from Hyderabad raised more than Rs 1 crore through crowdfunding. This money helped us feed 500,000 hungry people. But we are truly grateful for receiving constant support from a lot of eminent corporate and individual donors. In addition to financial support, huge help came through volunteers. We have received volunteer support from employees of Biocon and Volvo India in Bangalore.

Q: Tell us more about the initiatives you took during the pandemic.

A: When Covid struck, and the schools came to a halt, we repurposed food for Education to food for Relief. Akshaya Patra has been at the forefront whenever a tragedy has struck. Whether it was the Kerala, Chennai, or Bihar floods, we were present on the ground. When the earthquake happened in Nepal, we set up a temporary kitchen in 10 days flat and served 1.49 million meals over three months in Nepal, and then we exited the place.

At this juncture, we used our large facilities which can cook good quantities of meals and started by serving cooked meals in Rajasthan from the third week of March. Gradually, we moved on to include an “Essential grocery box” which includes dry rations to help feed 42 adult meals.

We continued feeding cooked meals and distributed dry rations’ grocery boxes. The programme began with service in Mumbai and Delhi and then expanded to stations in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. We have fed passengers on Shramik trains traveling from Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, and Mumbai in partnership with the alumni of NLSIU & BITS Pilani and Amazon India. We also ran a Meals-On-The-Go initiative in June where meals, snacks, and water were supplied to migrant workers as they travelled home on Shramik trains.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Akshaya Patra Foundation?

A: The Akshaya Patra Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation which strives to address issues like hunger and malnutrition in the country. By implementing the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in government and government-aided schools, Akshaya Patra aims to fight hunger and simultaneously, bring children to school. Starting in 2000, we have worked towards reaching children with wholesome food on every single school day. Technology is the bedrock of its state-of-the-art kitchens that churns out hygienic and nutritious food.

The Mid-Day Meal Scheme is perhaps the best example of Public-Private Partnership, with the involvement of the Government of India and various state governments. Akshaya Patra has grown from humble beginnings to the massive feeding programme it has become over 20 years.