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India’s Massive School Lunch Program Aims to Curb Widespread Malnutrition

October 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The economy in India is growing rapidly, but not fast enough to take care of its millions of poor and hungry children. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on a solution that has resulted in the world's largest school lunch program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to India, where the economy is growing rapidly, but not fast enough yet to take care of its millions of poor and hungry children.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on a solution that’s resulted in the world’s largest school lunch program.

A version of this story aired on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In thousands of schools across India, teachers will tell you to add one more R to reading, writing and arithmetic. Recess, they’ll tell you, may be the most critical part of a student’s school day.

That’s because morning recess is when students are provided a hot meal, as are a few younger siblings who are allowed to come along.

Dinesh Sharma is the principal of this school in Rajasthan.

DINESH SHARMA, principal (through translator): In this school, only about five children in all are able to bring a lunch from home. We have about 300 children.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Anywhere from a third to 40 percent of the world’s undernourished children live in India today, and about half of all children here have stunted growth.

Those grim statistics contrast sharply with the glowing ones on India’s economy, a disparity of growing concern in the country, says social researcher Biraj Patnaik.

BIRAJ PATNAIK, social researcher: India finds itself acutely embarrassed. Its ambitions of being a global power are very poorly reflected in social sector indicators, and there is the acute embarrassment that the second-fastest growing economy in the world has almost half of its children malnourished.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In 2005, India’s Supreme Court ruled for civic activists and ordered the government to ensure that every child gets a cooked meal in school.

Patnaik, who works for a commission that monitors compliance with the court order, says officials resisted at first.

BIRAJ PATNAIK: On the grounds that there was no infrastructure, that teachers would get overburdened, that India just didn’t have the financial resources to start a program of this nature. But the Supreme Court reaffirmed that fiscal constraints can never be allowed to come in the way of children’s right to food, and if the government had to tighten their belt, that had to happen elsewhere.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: With the stroke of a pen, the court ordered the largest school meal program in the world. That left the daunting task of implementing it, says Chanchalapathi Dasa.

CHANCHALAPATHI DASA, Akshaya Patra: The challenge in our country is how to deliver it and deliver it up to the last mile. That is the challenge, because a large country with 120 million children in hundreds and thousands of schools, that delivery is a genuine challenge.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Dasa’s group, called Akshaya Patra, or Bottomless Pot, was among the first to step in. It was started in the ’90s by a group of Hare Krishna devotees preparing a few hundred school lunches as part of the sect’s call to service. Later when such meals became the law of the land, Akshaya Patra went to the government for funds to expand and to India’s corporate sector for expertise.

CHANCHALAPATHI DASA: Passion alone is not enough. You need to have organization. You need to have organizational capabilities. You need to have management capabilities. Akshaya Patra has been a very unique marriage of dedicated missionaries and professionals coming with a heart.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And with their wallets. Among India’s growing middle class, there’s a dawning of philanthropy, he says. Many people are attaining wealth at a much earlier age.

CHANCHALAPATHI DASA: My parents probably would have a house — we come from a middle-class family — would have a house when they were probably 50 years of age.

In today’s India, by the time someone — and someone working in a software company in India — by the time they are 28 or 30 years old, they already have a house, they have a car, and then what? They still have a lot of disposable income, and they are genuinely looking for opportunities where their money can be used well for social development.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Akshaya Patra is now the largest of several social enterprises doing school lunches. It serves 1.3 million children every day from kitchens like this one, efficient and productive as any in the world, says manager Govinda Das.

GOVINDA DAS, Akshaya Patra: We cook about 150,000 meals in three hours’ time, and the ingredients that we use, something like 7,000 kilograms of wheat flour every day, and from that we make about 300,000 chapatis…

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Three hundred thousand?

GOVINDA DAS: Three hundred thousand flat-breads per hour.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Hours before students show up to school, workers begin feeding wheat flour into giant mixers. At the other end, flat-breads called chapatis emerge, 40,000 per hour, packed in spotless conditions.

In industrial-sized cauldrons, rice and a lentil stew called dhal are prepared. Flavoring varies by regional preference, but no animal products are used. Hare Krishna devotees are vegetarian in principle. So are most students, by economic necessity.

In Rajasthan’s desert summer, school starts early, and the meals arrive as early as 9:00 a.m. In the four years since Akshaya Patra began catering in this area, the most visible impact is in school attendance. It’s up 11 percent, no surprise to principal Madhu Kilani.

MADHU KILANI, school principal: Some of the students have — their economic condition is so poor that at night also they are not able to eat food in their home, so they depend, many of their strength depend on their midday meal.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For the whole day’s nutrition?

MADHU KILANI: Yes, for the whole day nutrition.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She says the students have more energy and improved concentration in class. For its part, Akshaya Patra plans to expand its lunch program five-fold by 2020.

Still, not all children, especially in the vast countryside, have benefited equally from the Supreme Court’s order, says compliance monitor Biraj Patnaik.

BIRAJ PATNAIK: Jharkhand, for instance, is a state where I often visited, and I despair at the quality of the meals that are being served there. Even within states where the meals work well, in the more inaccessible and remote parts of the state, you have meals which are not comparable at all in quality to what children in the rest of the country are getting.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: “We like it,” they responded when asked about their food.

But when I asked how many students have to go hungry on the days when there’s no school, the response was also nearly unanimous. They all did. Despite the Supreme Court’s sweeping order and large recent initiatives to address it, malnutrition remains a daunting problem. It is the root cause of 2,500 child deaths in India every day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.