for ISKCON News on Nov. 20, 2010
The ISKCON Midday Meal project—part of a larger program by the Indian Government to give poor children from slum and tribal areas better nutrition, improve school attendance, and reduce the drop-out rate—received permission recently to add a 19th food distribution center. The center, located in a rural area of Maharastra called Wada, is expected to open within the next three months.
The Indian Government began the Midday Meal Scheme in 1995 to uphold its constitution’s statement that every child has a right to education, after it became clear that some parents in very low socioeconomic brackets would rather send their children to earn rather than learn—leaving them with no education and a bleak future.
Starting off small, with the government only providing raw grains once a month, the program grew drastically when thousands of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) across the country began cooking in centralized kitchens and serving the meals to children in public schools everywhere.
ISKCON was approached to participate in the program in 2004, after its Chowpatty, Mumbai temple developed a good rapport with the education department through other charitable efforts.
“We were already running a Food For Life program, but it was on a very spontaneous basis—when devotees were free they would just cook a meal, bring it to the slums and distribute it,” says ISKCON Midday Meal national director Radha Krishna Dasa. “But in the Midday Meal program, we saw an opportunity to do Food for Life in an organized manner. So we agreed to do the project on a pilot basis.”
Devotees began the non-profit ISKCON Food Relief Foundation, and started out by catering to five schools of 900 students each. On their first day, in August 2004, they fed only one of these schools.
“At the time, we thought that it was a huge endeavor to feed 900 students every day, and that we had to be very cautious in making our commitment,” Radha Krishna says.
But they needn’t have worried. Today—only six years later—the ISKCON Midday Meal project is serving around 750,000 children every day in eight states. It has eighteen centers, with a strong presence in prominent cities such as Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Tirupati, Kurukshetra, and Mumbai, and a nineteenth center is on the way.
At each of these centers is a dedicated industrial kitchen, custom-made and ISO certified. Each kitchen has the best technology available for bulk cooking, including heavy-weight vegetable-cutting and potato-peeling machines, steam cookers for fuel efficiency and for retaining 100% of all nutrients, and high-tech grain-sorting machines.
“In Maharastra alone, we have four kitchens, which cook 4,500 kilos of rice every day,” Radha Krishna says. “To sort and clean all that rice manually would be very difficult. So we have special machines with computers attached to them, and each computer has sixty cameras. Literally every grain is photographed, and then sent down the appropriate chute according to color and size.”
Of course, the program must also have staff, and all its cooking staff—about 300 across the country—are Krishna devotees from Mayapur who chant and follow the four regulative principles of Vaishnavism.
The menu prepared by these cooks is prescribed by the government, and varies from state to state. In North India, the ISKCON Midday Meal may serve subji and chapattis, puris and dahl, or parathas with some pickle and yoghurt. In South India, they serve rice, sambhar and yoghurt. And in Maharastra, they serve kichari. Every single meal is sanctified food.
“Of course, sometimes the children will complain, ‘Oh, not kichari again!’” Radha Krishna says, grinning. “But for them, variety would be unhealthy snacks, which do not give them the required nutritional value. Instead, we try to make the kichari with a different variety of lentils, pulses, vegetables, and spices each day. Once a week, we cook the rice and dahl separately, and once a week, we give them a sweet preparation.”
The ISKCON Midday Meal also employs drivers and assistants to deliver its meals to schools every day.
“Naturally, we have to source these from outside of the devotee community,” Radha Krishna says, “Since in Maharastra alone, we have 69 vans that run 5,000 miles every day, delivering to 1,225 schools.”
The cooking staff of the ISKCON Midday Meal program have to be a dedicated bunch—they’re at work by 2:30am, chopping vegetables and starting up the cookers. By 8:00am, the first vans roll out.
In Mumbai, due to space constraints, the same premises is often shared by two public schools, running in shifts. One runs from 7:00am to 12:00pm, while the second runs from 12:30pm to 5:30pm. So the ISKCON Midday Meal’s vehicles bring food to the ‘first shift’ schools during their 9:30am lunch break, return the empty containers, leave again for the second shifters’ lunch at 2:30pm, and then bring the empty containers back to their base again in the evening.
“It provides quite a logistical challenge,” Radha Krishna says. “Because we have to reach the schools during their lunch break, distribute the food, and then the children have to eat, wash their plates, and be ready for their next class—all in twenty-five minutes flat!”
The same thing is organized across the country, with a typical center manned by one branch manager—trained by the head office in Maharastra—three supervisors, a head cook, dispatch clerks, an accountant, and office staff.
Unsurprisingly, the financial support given by the government for the program does not come close to covering all this. “The government gives us the raw grains, such as rice and wheat, as well as what they call a ‘cooking charge’ of about 1 rupee 75 paisa per day per child,” Radha Krishna says. “With this small amount, we are supposed to purchase all the remaining ingredients, pay for the cooks, pay for the delivery, and everything else involved. In reality, however, it costs us more like 4 rupees 50 paisa per day per child.”
ISKCON Food Relief Foundation’s fundraising team makes up the gap by creating awareness of the project and regularly approaching individuals, philanthropists, organizations and corporate bodies. Companies such as DSP Merill Lynch, Sterlite, Mafatlal Industries, and Yash Birla Group have all supported the project, as have individuals such as Mr. Alfred Ford of the Ford Motor Company, the late Shri Sunil Dutt, and Smt. Indu Jain.
As one of the larger organizations involved in the Midday Meal program, and providing many poor children with their only square meal of the day, ISKCON’s efforts are appreciated by many.
“Last year, we ran a campaign, and Radio Red FM, a very popular radio station in Mumbai, picked up our cause for their annual ‘corporate social responsibility,’ or CSR,” Radha Krishna says. “They broadcast promos for the Midday Meal every hour, in which they were extremely appreciative of the project, and people would send in text messages saying that they wanted to contribute. It was hugely successful for us and raised a lot of awareness about our activities.”
Meanwhile, the ISKCON Food Relief Foundation was presented with a National Child Health Award for its exemplary work in the area of nutrition by multi-national company Hindustan Unilever, at a September 2009 symposium in New Delhi.
The government of India is also extremely appreciative of the Foundation’s work, as are of course the students, teachers, and parents.
Despite all their achievements, however, members of the ISKCON Midday Meal program remain humble as helpers in a much bigger vision.
“Of course, we understand that we are still miniscule compared to the overall expanse of the Midday Meal program, which covers all of India and feeds about 120 million children every day,” Radha Krishna says. “But we are just glad to help, and especially in a way that will help people—including those who may not have before—to appreciate ISKCON and Krishna consciousness.”
Looking back on its history, the ISKCON Midday Meal is expanding at the rate of fifty per cent every year, and there is no reason to suspect that the trend won’t continue.
“Setting up each center is a huge effort and investment,” says Radha Krishna. “But there is a lot of scope for expansion, and we do desire to expand. So we hope that in the future, as He has in the past, Lord Krishna will somehow or other fulfill that desire.”
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