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Mid-Day Meals Boost The Physical And Cognitive Development Of Children: Madhu Pandit Dasa

In an exclusive interaction with Priya Saraf of BW Education, Madhu Pandit Dasa, Chairman, The Akshaya Patra Foundation, shares his journey and inception of the foundation. He also talks about the social initiatives carried by the foundation that impact millions of people in the country to give them a better life. Excerpts below.

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What inspired you to establish Akshaya Patra and expand it all over the country?

Akshaya Patra traces its beginning to a story of compassion. One day in Mayapur, a village near Calcutta, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was looking out of a window and he saw a group of children fighting with dogs over scraps of food. From this simple, yet heart-breaking incident was born a determination that ‘no child within a radius of ten miles from our centre should go hungry.’ This story served as an inspiration for us and we started providing children a nutritious mid-day meal as an incentive to come to school, thus contributing towards their overall health and education.

We started with the feeding of 1,500 children in Bengaluru, Karnataka. The popularity of the initiative prompted many school authorities to write to us asking us to serve mid-day meals in their schools. Over the period, many like-minded individuals and organisations came forward and helped us reach more and more children. Today, we serve more than 1.76 million children studying in Government schools across 12 states of the country.

Can you tell us more about these beyond the meals initiatives; what are these initiatives and how are they contributing to children’s wellbeing and development?

The promise of a nutritious meal as an incentive brings more than 94 million children to school every day, thus providing an opportunity to think beyond the meal programme and focus on the holistic development of children. Mid-day meals boost the physical and cognitive development of children. Through initiatives that go beyond the meals, we are attempting to build on this development. In the long run, these initiatives are our attempts to facilitate the transformation of communities, to empower them.

We have the ‘School and Student Transformation’ initiative which seeks to create an environment that is instrumental towards student development by focusing on infrastructural changes and educational interventions. Similarly, we have the ‘Giving Every Dream a Chance’ initiative, which has been implemented to provide our beneficiaries an opportunity to pursue their unique and special dreams. We are also providing scholarships to children to help them with their educational pursuit.

Could you provide us with more insight about the Giving Every Dream a Chance initiative? How successful has the GEDAC initiative been as of now? Could you tell us something about the progress you have made since its inception?

We initiated the ‘Giving Every Dream a Chance’ initiative to empower our beneficiaries to dream big and to support and promote their talent by helping them pursue it. The idea was that every child has a dream and all dreams are valid, thus need to be supported. Through this mentorship initiative, we train children in dance, music, theatre, sports, and even robotics. Our aim is to provide children an opportunity to enhance their skills by identifying and nurturing them.

We began this programme in 2016 on a pilot basis, empowering three beneficiaries: Manjula, an aspiring actress; Shivu, a budding astronomer; and Shekar, a chef-in-making. Today, close to 3,500 children benefit from the initiative. We have also been organising events to showcase the talents of beneficiary children thus giving them exposure. Recently, we organised one such talent showcase event in Jaipur in which children got an opportunity to showcase their singing prowess.

Over the next few years, we plan to touch the lives of over 100,000 beneficiaries across the country as a part of the Giving Every Dream a Chance initiative. We will mentor these children in the field of their interest and empower them in their pursuit of a better tomorrow. While we focus on sports, theatre, music, etc., as of now, we are looking into the feasibility of adding more vocations to the list.

Our mentorship initiative is one component of the larger ecosystem we are trying to build here, with the wellbeing and development of children at the core. We are hopeful that more organisations and donors will come forward to support us over the next few years and we will be able to establish a strong system to tirelessly serve the children of our country.

Funding is important for the running of an organisation irrespective of its size. How does Akshaya Patra raise funds to run its operations?

As the implementing partner of the Government’s Mid-Day Meal Scheme, we receive material and conversion cost as and hygiene, automation, kitchen set up, etc. We raise funds from individual and corporate donors to set up Government subsidy. Our contribution includes investment on manpower, distribution, food safety and kitchen operations. The Ministry of Finance has granted us the permission to raise funds from within the country, while the Ministry of Home Affairs has granted us the permission to collect donations from abroad under Foreign Contributions (Regulations) Act (FCRA). These funds help us provide multi-item menu cooked in state-of-the-art facilities where proper hygiene is given due importance.

Akshaya Patra features as a beneficiary in the CSR initiatives of a lot of corporate organisations. How do you ensure transparency, while continuing to create impact?

At Akshaya Patra, financial transparency is ensured by putting into place robust accounting mechanisms. All the information about the Foundation is made available in the public domain using the Annual Report, audit reports, internal and third-party evaluation reports, impact studies, etc. We comply with the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and the Accounting Standards issued by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI).

How will Akshaya Patra contribute to the National Nutrition Mission? What is the ‘Smart Foods’ initiative?

The National Nutrition Mission (NNM) is directed at strengthening the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), and to this end, Akshaya Patra will work towards the advocacy for convergence of Mid-Day Meal Scheme and ICDS to combat malnutrition in children in the age group of 0 – 14 years. The broad objective (of convergence) is to improve the nutrition status of the children in India by converging Government’s health and nutrition policies.

Akshaya Patra, in partnership with the Government of Karnataka, introduced millet-based foods in mid-day meals. Millets are rich in nutrients, minerals, vitamins and organic compounds which boost human health, and are thus labelled ‘Smart Foods of the 21st century.’ Through their introduction, we seek to enhance the nutrition profile of mid-day meals. We intend to implement the initiative in other locations in a phased and systematic manner and advocate for their inclusion in the school lunch programme across the country.

What is your take on the present mid-day meal scheme functioning in India?

The Government of India has initiated several welfare schemes to address malnutrition and hunger—the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme is an example that stands out for its massive scale and impact on health and education. This Scheme provides cooked nutritious meals to over 9 Crore children in more than 11 lakh schools across the country. It is known to be the largest school nutrition programme in the world. For many of the beneficiaries, this is the only proper meal they have throughout the day. The school lunch programme is a crucial step in addressing the issue of access to food for children on a large-scale across the country.

By providing adequate nutrition, the programme seeks to address issues that impair children's physical growth and cognitive development. Therefore, the initiative is key in helping address issues such as stunting, wasting, nutrient deficiencies, as well as lack of concentration. Other than addressing the twin issues of hunger and malnutrition in school-aged children, the programme also seeks to bring them to school, thus addressing issues such as school absenteeism, dropout rates, etc.

The Government of India and State Governments are definitely making concerted and successful efforts in bringing more children to school - especially in rural areas and, in turn, taking those many more children closer to attaining the ideal nutritional status.



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