Are Akshaya Patra Kitchens What They are Made Out to Be?

Children in an Indian classroom. Credit: Yorick_R, CC 2.0

Children in an Indian classroom. Credit: Yorick_R, CC 2.0

In recent years, NGOs have become increasingly involved in supplying meals to schools as part of the government’s midday meal scheme, particularly in large urban areas. Akshaya Patra is the largest of these, currently working in 10 states, feeding 1.4 million children each day. Centralised kitchens are vast and impressive. Huge quantities of food are produced in a mechanised manner and in hygienic conditions. The shiny kitchens contrast starkly with the decentralised model where, at best, the food is prepared in a simple kitchen and is cooked and distributed at the school by a local cook (usually a needy woman).

On the surface, it is thus tempting to laud organisations such as Akshaya Patra and endorse the centralised model. Tavleen Singh did just this in the Indian Express on July 19 when she recommended ‘a visit to any Akshaya Patra centre to see the difference between the school meals they provide and what government school kitchens provide’. I have spent the past nine months researching the midday meal scheme and take issue with this endorsement of Akshaya Patra. I believe we need to be cautious about such a simplistic acceptance of NGOs and centralised kitchens.

There are indeed many differences between the school meals provided by Akshaya Patra and school-based kitchens. Firstly, in decentralised kitchens you will find onion and garlic being used. Akshaya Patra does not use these ingredients for religious reasons. It is disconcerting that in a secular country, an organisation in partnership with the government is being allowed to dictate the menu according to the religion of its own promoters. For every Rs 7.40 Akshaya Patra spends per lunch per day, the government provides Rs 4.38. It is not clear why religion should be part of this government food security scheme.

More detrimentally, the NGO’s religious beliefs are also preventing the inclusion of eggs in the scheme in Rajasthan and other states such as Karnataka. Both the poor nutritional status of India’s children and the nutritional benefits of eggs are well documented. There is also a demand for eggs. In my research, I found that of 135 parents, 90% wanted their children to have eggs in school. A quarter of this sample were parents of children attending a school supplied by Akshaya Patra. It is not an absence of demand or even a lack of resources that is stopping these children from getting eggs, but the religious beliefs of the NGO’s promoters.

Secondly, in schools with a well-functioning midday meal scheme, you will find fruit being provided once a week. The weekly provision of fruit is stipulated in government guidelines and is desperately wanted by poor children who rarely consume fruit at home. Although providing fruit is a difficult task for many schools due to the meagre budget, most try. Yet, certainly in their Nathdwara and Jaipur kitchens, Akshaya Patra do not provide fruit at all. This is despite the considerable resources received from the government, CSR funding and donations.

Thirdly, in schools with a decentralised kitchen you will usually find hot and fresh food, cooked by local cooks according to local taste and preference. Visit schools where the food is provided by Akshaya Patra and you will find far blander food and piles of unwanted chapatis. Fresh chapatis at the Akshaya Patra kitchens are quite good. After they have been stored in a container for hours, they are almost inedible. In the centralised model, there is no space for local or cultural preference and no consideration of what people usually eat or want to eat.

Fourthly, in the villages of rural Rajasthan, you will find the needy, mostly Dalit women and often widows, employed as cooks. The work is hard and they receive an almost insulting Rs. 1000 per month, but it does provide a much-needed source of employment. When you centralise the kitchens, this source of rural employment is lost. Fewer people are employed, and preference is not given to the needy.

Further, the National Food Security Act stipulates that centralized kitchens can only operate in urban areas. Yet, for instance, the Akshaya Patra kitchen in Nathdwara supplies the whole block, in violation of the Act. This means that food is kept in containers for many hours before it is consumed raising food safety concerns. The model also prevents community participation.

These concerns extend to centralised kitchens in general. Kitchens run by NGOs are constantly being found to be inadequate and are closed down. For example, a centralised kitchen run by the Naandi Foundation used to supply food in Girwa block in Udaipur district. After many complaints from schools and parents about the quality of the food being provided, the kitchen was closed and the decentralised model was adopted. A 2013 parliamentary report raised questions over the funding of Akshaya Patra and ISKCON and the loss of employment for cook-cum- helpers. Moreover, the very recent CAG audit of the scheme found the suppliers in Delhi were not supplying enough food and in Karnataka ISCKON served 1.04 lakh kg less grain than required.

This is not to suggest that there are no problems with decentralised kitchens. Of course, there are. Time and time again I have witnessed schools without adequate cooking and storage facilities, schools not following the prescribed menus, schools struggling for money because the budget is too low and cooks not being paid on time. These problems need urgent attention, yet the recent budget cuts are likely to exacerbate them.

I am also not suggesting that there is no role for centralised kitchens in the midday meal scheme. Perhaps they have a role to play in large urban areas (although I do wonder whether a more localised system of collective kitchens run by local people might be the better way). Akshaya Patra provides hygienic food regularly and should be commended for this.

But, we need to be careful. Careful of letting seemingly benevolent NGOs supply food according to their own agendas, without regard for guidelines and without rigorous monitoring. Careful of losing sight of what and who the midday meal scheme is for. The midday meal scheme is an investment in India’s children and future. It seems unnecessary to let religious or other agendas get in the way of this.

Lana Whittaker is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge who is researching India’s midday meal scheme

  • Harry Lime

    One more reminder of why privatisation and NGO-isation of our social sector makes it worse because it magnifies individual prejudices.

    Kudos for writing and publishing it.

  • Halli Haida

    I had not noticed the author’s name, but as I read through this piece I realised that an Indian cannot be writing this!! I was right after all. I live next to a government high school in Bangalore where the lunch is supplied by Akshay Patra and each and every kid in the school seems to relish the food provided by them. And the supply chain is planned out by them in order to make sure that food is hot when it is served to the kids. They have a separate menu for every day. Unlike this, a local cook may not be hygienic at all and we have seen several incidents in the past where kids have been hospitalised due to unhygienic mid day meals. Moreover the choice of menu rests with that person who cooks what is easier for him/her.The primary purpose of this scheme is not providing employment, but to feed the kids. I find it strange that every other person talks about being secular in India except for Indians. I say this even though I am a hindutva basher on most occasions. For once, @the_wire has disappointed me. But that’s all right.

  • BaBaSmokey

    It’s charity dear author, better to eat healthy food with or without onion than staying hungry.

  • Holy Cow

    I am curious about the writer’s intent: The Akshayapatra program is a proven model for providing nutritious and clean food to children. For all the research Ms Whittaker has done, she has failed to understand the finer aspects of a Sattvic diet. Please stop looking at it through the lens of “an agenda” or “religion”. I would request her to introduce this diet in schools in the West – maybe there will be more learning happening there.

  • muslimbhagawat

    Decentralized kitchens in school premises and unhealthy system of cooking with dead rats and lizards cooked with food made students life risky

  • Prashant S.

    The writer is trying to inject religion into food. With that, the first casualty is rationality, facts and logic.

    The writer brings up the issue of nutritional value of eggs. There is plenty of evidence to show healthy vegetarian diets with pulses provide healthy proteins. In addition, vegetarian diets prevent obesity.

    Central Kitchens may work in some contexts and decentralized Kitchens may work in others. It is also possible that local communities may produce their own solution. India is a large complex country and many solutions can simultaneously work here.

    However the writer’s approach to this appears to be prima facie very partisan and narrow. For an academic student from a prestigious University, I was expecting to see broader understanding. Disappointing. Especially because the author also completely ignores the Science of Ayurveda and its recommendations on human diets, their impact on human wellness and ecological well being.

    I think the author rather trying to preach a pre-determined approach will be better off to show an openness to a broader range of possibilities.

  • Sanghi Leopard

    Dear Lana,

    Since you are doing a PhD, I would suggest you NOT to go with predetermined notions; that would be a cardinal sin in research.

    Vegetarians (large % of Indians) will NOT eat eggs but egg-eaters can (& regularly do) eat chapatis! You want Akshaya Patra to distribute eggs which would limit the recipients and have a problem with food that is suitable for all.. this proposition is quite odd because you would want to have the maximum benificaries to a social scheme.

    And where does the question of ‘secularism’ and ‘religious bias’ come into picture? Does Akshaya Patra ask students to convert into any specific religion? Does it discriminate in providing food to students (i.e, only Hindus would be given food and not Muslims)? Does it provide food which is forbidden in any religion ( like pork or beef) and thus won’t be acceptable to some students?

    I think they are making the best of choics available and that is by providing food to students acceptable to all.

  • Jyoti Awasthi

    On the contrary , my visit to several schools in urban and rural Lucknow has shown that now teachers can focus on teaching, rather than cooking. AkshayPatra food is yummy as the children said, it is hot and they have a rich menu which also includes kheer, once a week. This ready made food has taken a lot of burden off the teachers’ shoulders. As far as egg is concerned, there are issues with the quality of eggs especially in the weather conditions across India. Please stop seeing things ALWAYS with secular and non secular lens and become cynical at the end of it. Lastly, I hope the researcher also spoke to the teachers who were managing the school kitchen and collected their version of change.

  • Brijesh KumarGupta

    i am verymuch upset about seeing this research about akshay patra. firstly i want to say that akshay patra do not contain garlic and onion due to religious reason. because they make the prasad as the believe. so in our religion prasad can not be made by garlic and onion . because it is TAMSIK. i accept that nutritional purpose it is very good for our health but our mind can not be set properly by eating this per day . i want to say that if u eat garlic and onion then left it only for 3-4 days then see that how your minds properly work better than before.
    so akshay patra serve LORD KRISHNA PRASAD to all the children. u can compare the children between akshay patra serving and other decentrilized kitchen and other ngo. and behalf of this calories and protein are sufficient as required in MID DAY MEAL. so i think that there is not any problem in AKSHAY PATRA .