How Akshaya Patra feeds millions of kids in India every day

In visit to MIT, Emily Rosenbaum, CEO of Akshaya Patra USA, talks about the mission to boost education in India through food.

akshaya patra usa

40% of malnourished children in the world live in India. Some of the poorest families survive on less than $1.25 per day, and parents are often compelled to pull their children out of school, sending them to work and contribute to the household income. In 2001, the Supreme Court of India passed a law that mandated providing every child in every government and government-assisted primary school with a prepared mid-day meal. This law aimed to avoid classroom hunger, increase school attendance, improve socialization among castes, and address malnutrition. But even though a comprehensive law had been passed, the government has been unable to consistently provide these meals, creating a need for third-party organizations to fill the gap.

Enter Akshaya Patra: A non-profit organization that fights hunger and malnutrition by providing mid-day meals to children attending government schools. Using a model of large, centralized kitchens, they provide 1.5 million school children in India with a tasty, wholesome meal every day. They believe that too many children are forced to choose between education and food, and they want to change that.

Emily Rosenbaum, CEO of Akshaya Patra USA, the fundraising arm of the organization, visited the MIT Tata Center to talk about how her organization scaled up a program that served 1500 children per day in the year 2000, and now serves school lunches to 1.5 million children in India.

Rosenbaum’s journey began in 2011 when she visited the Hubli kitchen in Karnataka, which feeds 126,693 children everyday. “I was moved by this amazing program,” she says.

At Akshaya Patra, food is used as an incentive to bring children to school and enhance their learning. A public-private partnership with the government, Akshaya Patra receives monetary and grain subsidies. This cuts their costs in half, which helps them to maximize their output of wholesome meals.

One of Akshaya Patra's centralized kitchens.
One of Akshaya Patra’s centralized kitchens.

“Our vision is that no child in India should be deprived of education because of hunger, and our mission is to feed 5 million children by 2020,” says Rosenbaum. “There are several ways we are trying to achieve this mission. One of them is the innovative technology in our kitchens.”

Currently there are 24 Akshaya Patra kitchens operating in 10 states of India. What’s innovative about these kitchens is the machinery that was specifically engineered by the founders to cater to large populations. For example, the system for baking chapatis (a flatbread made with flour) went from churning out 10,000 chapatis in 5 hours to now producing 60,000 in the same amount of time. Through constant improvement and innovation of the existing technology, they redesigned their chapati-baking machine to produce 6 times as many units.

Recognition of and adaptation to a local palate is a priority. Each meal also has the appropriate amount of fats, protein and carbohydrates. The health of the children is at the core of this organization.

“Food is not charity, it’s something we all need,” says Rosenbaum. “There is no sense in giving children food they don’t like, aren’t used to and won’t eat. Food has to be inviting, match the local palate, and be healthy and nutritious,” says Rosenbaum.

Boston-based entrepreneur Gururaj Deshpande says Akshaya Patra is unique because they “bring the execution excellence of a for-profit with the mindset of a non-profit, which allows them to make maximum impact.”

To reach 5 million children, Rosenbaum says new kitchens need to be constructed, they must continue their technological innovation, and they need a strong focus on long term sustainability. To consistently succeed, Rosenbaum believes that willingness from community members is key. If the cause of this organization resonates with locals, they too get involved to make sure the meals served are of highest quality and the service to schools is impeccable.

“We don’t see ourselves as a charity, but as innovators,” she says.

Photos via Akshaya Patra USA