20 kitchens like this feed 12 lakh children daily

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Sanjeev  Nayyar gets inside a kitchen that’s more than just feeding hungry  children; it is liberating them -- irrespective of caste, creed, sex  or religion -- not just on the physical level but also on a spiritual  level.

The  mid-day meal scheme is the world’s largest school feeding programme  reaching out to about 12 crore children in over 12.65 lakh schools  centres across the country.

However,  off late the scheme has been suffering from structural problems, the  biggest being the lack of a proper monitoring mechanism.

While  reports of insects or lizards being found in the meal keep cropping  up, unhygienically-cooked and under-nutritious food are the other  issues dogging the scheme.

But  amid the gloom lies a ray of hope.

The  International Society for Krishna Consciousness’s Food Relief  Foundation delivers 12,00,000 meals every day from its 20 kitchen  centers across 8 states.

While  implementing the central government's mid-day meal scheme, the  non-profit IFRF seeks to liberate the underprivileged from the  vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy by serving children with  sanctified food.

Says  Dr RadhaKrishna Das, IFRF managing programme director: “The genesis  of Foundation’s purpose dates back to 1974. One day Founder-Acharya  Srila Prabhupada was looking out from his room at an ISKCON temple in  Mayapur (West Bengal). He noticed a group of village children  fighting with street dogs over scraps of food. Shocked and saddened  by what he saw, Srila Prabhupada turned to his disciples and said,  ‘No one within a ten mile radius of our temples should go hungry’.”

“When  the government of India launched the mid-day meal scheme in 1995, the  IFRF saw a great opportunity for providing children with the right  nutrition to support their education. So the foundation was set up in  2004.”

The  mid-day meal scheme was started to motivate children to go to school.  When it was started only dry grains were given, but around 2002 the  Supreme Court ruled that cooked meals must be given.
 Initially,  the food was cooked indoors. But that changed after the 2004  Kumbakonam tragedy (where  90 children were burned to death in a fire that started in the  kitchen of the Saraswathi primary school in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu,  as staff were preparing the mid-day meal).

The  grains (rice or wheat) are provided by the central government while  cooking charges are paid for by the state government or nodal  authority appointed by it. The government gives 100 grams of grain  (rice) for a primary school child and 150 grams for a secondary  school child.

The  meal menu -- decided by the state-level nodal authority -- varies  between regions. In the south, it is sambar,  rice and curd. In the north, it is roti, sabzi and dal.  In Maharashtra, it is khichdi, dal-rice, sambar or pulao.

ISKCON’s  kitchen in Tardeo locality in South Mumbai has four cooking vessels  or cauldrons.
The menu on day of this writer’s visit was khichdi (a  dish of rice and legumes).
The cooking process: Boil water, add veggies/lentils, add masalas through tadka,  mix, boil, open release valve, fill in steel utensils, seal and send  in van for delivery.

The  kitchen supplies food to schools, including Urdu medium ones. In  fact, its vegetarian meals are much appreciated in Urdu medium  schools.

The  IFRF works in eight states, including Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh,  Delhi, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana.

The  foundation has 20 branches and feeds 12 lakh children daily. In  Maharashtra alone, approximately 2,75,000 meals are made daily in  kitchens that boast of ISO  22000 certification.

"The  Midday Meal Project is being implemented under the name of  'Annamrita' meaning food as pure as nectar,” says Dr RadhaKrishna.

When  you think of nutritious food you think of what a mother serves to her  child and that is what ‘Annamrita’ stands for. A similar feeling  of love is visible in the eyes of all those who work in this kitchen.

The  ambience is spiritual in the hi-tech kitchen, which has been set up  with a capital cost of Rs 3.5 crore.

Against  an actual cost of Rs 5-6, the Foundation receives cooking charges of  Rs 3.02 per meal per day for primary section and Rs 4.47 for a  secondary section child.
The difference between actual cost  and what the government pays is met from donations received from  corporates and individuals.

All  vegetables are first cleaned in an aqua-chlor chlorinating solution,  washed with fresh water, cut and then used for cooking.

The  Nutritional value of khichdi is enhanced by dal, chana (chickpea), rajma (red  kidney bean) and vegetables -- all cooked in different spices. Food  has to be tasty or else children will not like it. IFRF makes every  effort to make it nutritional as well.

A  batch-wise control is kept -- temperature control, taste check…  everything is recorded. A sample container is kept in kitchen and  temperature checked three hours later to ascertain if the food is  still hot.

Food  is filled into steel containers. Once a container is filled and  closed it is sealed (as you see a volunteer doing in this picture).

Schools  have been instructed not to serve food if the seal is tampered. Seals  are of different colors to indicate quantity of food in the  container.

Containers  are then put in vehicles to be distributed to the schools. Delivery  to schools happens twice a day, once from 8.30 am to 9.30 am and then  for lunch at 2.30 pm.
To get food ready by 8.30 am, the  kitchen starts as early as 2 am.

Every  outsider who visits the kitchen has to wear an apron, head gear and  sanitised slippers -- all provided for by the kitchen.

Dr  RadhaKrishna emphasised that hygiene and quality of preparation were  given utmost importance.

It  is for this reason that IFRF insisted that all grains received from  Food Corporation of India have to go through an exhaustive cleaning  process before they are received at the kitchen. That process is  undertaken at a cleaning plant in Navi Mumbai.

On  arrival, the grains are kept on wooden containers, fumigated (kills  insects) and covered with black plastic.

The  grains pass through an aspirator (to  remove dust and chaff),  destoner (that  removes stones).  The process is repeated to extract the best quality grains.

Then  before the grains are packed, they are polished and sorted in a Color  Sortex machine that has three cameras which separate white rice from  any other rice.

There  are many challenges in extending the ISKCON Food Relief Foundation  nationwide.

Every  kitchen costs Rs 3.5 crore to set up, which needs to be funded by a  donor. Further, donors are also required to meet the funding gap  between cooking charges received from the government and amounts  actually spent.

Then,  the period within which reimbursement of cooking charges is received  from the state government is uncertain -- it could be six months or  even a year.

Since  the Foundation has to pay for all expenses in cash, it has to bear  the resultant cash shortfall. This puts tremendous pressure on the  Foundation’s resources.

Needless  to say, a dynamic state government can make things easier because  benefits far outweigh the cost. Faith-based organisations like IFRF  treat all children equally without differentiating on the basis of  economic strata or religion.

With  the renewed focus on Corporate Social Responsibility and limits on  CSR fixed in the new Companies Act hope India Inc take to funding of  mid-day meals in a bigger way.

Further,  instead of expecting the government to come with solutions and  funding, individuals too can sponsor mid-day meals.

At  IFRF it costs only Rs 900 to sponsor meals for a child for a year.  The next time you go to an expensive restaurant or a multiplex, pause  before you spend and think of mid-day meal sponsorship!

The  author is a national affairs analyst and founder www.esamskriti.com

First  published in www.rediff.com

To  see pictures of the Tardeo kitchen and rice cleaning unit Click Here

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