Feeding Hungry Souls Through Technology

Akshaya Patra Foundation runs the world's largest school lunch programme, serving wholesome food to over 1.8 million children. The NGO has leveraged technology to increase its reach across India

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Imagine, you are in school and in the middle of a class. Suddenly, the bell rings. It's your lunch break. The corridors are packed and you have snuggled into a corner with your friends to find what's there in their lunch boxes. Well, not all children are lucky enough to have access to food, let alone education.

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India was ranked 101 out of 116 countries in the recently released Global Hunger Index, said a report.

Hunger, especially classroom hunger, impairs a child's performance even when they attend school. The Mid-Day Meal scheme in India acts as a huge incentive in bringing these underprivileged children to schools. Akshaya Patra, a not-for-profit organisation, strives to address this issue of classroom hunger and focuses on bringing children to school by implementing the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme in government and government-aided schools. "Since 2000, we have been continuously leveraging technology to cater to millions of children. Our state-of-the-art kitchens have become a subject of study and attract curious visitors from around the world," said Shridhar Venkat, CEO of Akshaya Patra Foundation.

In partnership with the government of India and various state governments and with the support of many philanthropic donors and well-wishers, Akshaya Patra today runs the world's largest (not-for-profit run) school lunch programme, serving wholesome food to over 1.8 million children from 19,039 schools across 14 states and two Union Territories of India. Currently, the organisation operates 60 centralised kitchens across the country.

From the preparation of meals to large-scale feeding, the NGO has leveraged technology to increase its reach to millions of children across the country. All operations are managed from a single point of control, which include receiving and storage of raw materials, preparation and delivery of meals and maintenance. To integrate all aspects of operations including production, distribution, maintenance, inventory management and administration, the organisation utilises enterprise resource planning (ERP)–a computer-based operations management system. The NGO also deploys customer relationship management (CRM) tools to manage donations. Its state-of-the-art food safety and quality control (FSQC) labs are equipped with the latest technology and high-precision testing instruments to facilitate the evaluation of products, ranging from raw materials to cooked meals.

The NGO runs its operations through centralised and decentralised kitchens. "Centralised kitchens are large factory-like kitchen units that have the capacity to typically cook up to 200,000 meals a day. Whereas, decentralised kitchen units are run by women self-help groups (SHGs) under the guidance and supervision of Akshaya Patra's kitchen process and operations module," said the CEO.

The NGO uses innovation in technology. Balgdon Pumps, famous for their use in chocolate factories, is used here to pump the 'ganji' (excess water from cooked rice) out of the rice cauldrons, where it is then recycled for use in bio-culture or vehicle washing water. This is part of their pilot program. Similarly, it uses a customized roti-making machine that could churn out 60,000 rotis in an hour.

In a pilot initiative launched in Bengaluru, Karnataka, Akshaya Patra applied technologies such as blockchain, data analytics, and Internet of Things (IoT) to four critical processes–monitoring meal production, tracking food delivery, collecting school feedback and measuring the quantity of food and supplies to be purchased. "During this pilot, the organisation deployed digital thermometers to measure the temperature of the food, handheld devices to digitally collect feedback on the meals from all stakeholders, a predictive analytics tool to determine the potential demand in a day, based on historical data of student attendance and so on."

"We are also constantly experimenting with green technologies to further reduce our carbon footprint. Keeping this in mind, we aim to install converters that will transform bio-waste into electricity across a few of our kitchens. We are also planning to set up special effluent treatment plants to treat the wastewater of the kitchens."

The organization has tied up with The World Food Program to further enhance the effectiveness of the Mid-Day Meal Program. "The body has a global network of running large scale feeding programs. We are particularly looking forward to the cross-learning exercise between countries in the region and the global south on how they run their school meals programme, what are the technologies deployed there, how they use data science to assess impact and other strategy related elements," said Venkat.

The NGO has also partnered with Harvest Plus, a Washington DC-based organisation which is a part of Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).