INDIAN WEST: It all started when Srila Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, happened to look out a window.
Seated within one of the organization’s temples in a Mayapur, West Bengal, he glimpsed a sight outside that shocked and dismayed him: children were fighting with street dogs for scraps of discarded food.
“He called his people and announced that from that point onward, within a 10-mile radius of every ISKCON temple, there should be no hungry person — especially children,” Akshaya Patra vice chairman and trustee Chanchalapathi Dasa recounted Oct. 20.
Dasa was speaking at the San Francisco Bay Area fundraising gala for Akshaya Patra, a secular nonprofit inspired by ISKCON that feeds a remarkable 1.3 million underprivileged school children in 9,000 schools across India for a cost of just Rs. 7 each per day — the biggest such program in the world.
“The nature of urban poverty in our country is that the poor send their kids to government schools,” explained Dasa. “We wanted to get to the children at the bottom of the pyramid.”
Feeding children so that they can pay attention in school is not just a charitable act, but one designed to shape the future, he said. “If children are well fed and well educated, they will not contribute to the drag on the country — they will contribute to its progress.”More than $200,000 was raised at the Oct. 20 event at the India Community Center, which featured a South Indian vegetarian dinner, an auction and an inspiring talk by international tennis pro-turned-philanthropist and Padma Shri recipient Vijay Amritraj.
Amritraj explained that part of the reason he was drawn to support Akshaya Patra was that it serves children, but also that the NGO’s work seems to surmount an impossible challenge.
Amritraj was raised in a household in Chennai where he and his two high-achieving brothers, Anand and Ashok, were constantly urged to do their best.
“‘Can’t,’ in our house, meant ‘won’t,’” said Amritraj. “My mom, especially, made sure that you reached for the impossible … In life, we constantly face these battles, but every challenge is an opportunity. Pressure is a privilege!”
Speaking to the well-heeled crowd at ICC, he continued, “You’ve faced it — you’ve come out of the depths of difficulty and tasted the fruits of incredible success.”
Amritraj is the founder of the Vijay Amritraj Foundation, which raises money for nearly 20 organizations doing strong work in India.
He also served from 2001-2006 as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, during which time he traveled to hard-hit places such as post-quake Bhuj, Gujarat; and Tsunami-hit cities in Asia.
Not only was Amritraj impressed by how fast and effective UN aid could be, but it also showed him that every act performed to help someone else, no matter how small, was effective and meaningful. “Every little thing we can do, we should do,” he said.
Akshaya Patra has won numerous awards for developing a hygienic, innovative and well-organized system that supplies hot, fresh meals to school children, but it has also been recognized for the transparency of its financial accounting. Its name, which means “inexhaustible vessel” in Sanskrit, is represented by its logo, a large golden pot.
The organization began in 2000 by feeding 1,500 children in five schools in Bangalore.
Today, working out of a network of 19 kitchens in 9 states, most fitted with huge stainless steel cauldrons and large, stacked tiffin boxes each the size of a 50-gallon drum, the organization cooks on a mega-scale. In one kitchen alone, cooks prepare 150,000 meals in three hours, using huge bags of raw pulses and around 7,000 kg of wheat flour to make 300,000 rotis in a specially designed oven.
Recent tragic events in Bihar, in which 27 school children were poisoned by pesticides in government-provided mid-day meals not supplied by Akshaya Patra, have placed hygiene and safe food handling practices in the limelight.
“The process is complex, and there are a lot of challenges,” Dasa told India-West. “The government does not really know how enormous the task is — they would hire simple women folk who are used to cooking for four or five people at home, and tell them to cook these enormous meals. They didn’t know about safe food storage or hygiene, and there was no formal training and no infrastructure.”
Now, the central Indian government has called upon Akshaya Patra to help design and implement school lunch programs within Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand.
Akshaya Patra Foundation U.S.A. is the fundraising arm of Akshaya Patra, which is able to support approximately 10 percent of the overall operating costs of the mid-day meal program in India. According to the group’s Web site, approximately 90 percent of the requirements are met by Indian funds in a public-private partnership in which the government meets 50 percent of the overall needs.
Emily Rosenbaum, the recently appointed CEO of Akshaya Patra U.S.A., said that she hopes that donors will start signing up for recurring payments online. “You can support a child for an entire year for just $15, and that’s a great gift idea as well,” she told India-West. “Instead of buying material things, you can get so much more out of changing another person’s life.”
Desh Deshpande, chairman of Akshaya Patra U.S.A., told India-West that its current base of 1.3 million is just a start, and that they are working to scale it up to five million daily meals by 2020.
“Once you show five million children what’s possible, it sets a benchmark for what it can be. In a democracy, that’s the best way to spread good practices. Once people know what’s possible, they won’t settle for anything less than that.”
It sounds like a big job, but Akshaya Patra is on its way to getting there.