Each school day, more than a million children in 6,500 schools across seven Indian states eagerly await the vehicle that brings their midday meal. For many of them, the food provided by the Bangalore-based Akshaya Patra Foundation is their first, and perhaps only, meal of the day. The promise of an ample hot lunch brings them to school regularly. The foundation’s hope is that the nutrition helps them think clearly once they are there.

“Our program is not just about providing food,” says Madhu Pandit Das, chairman of the Akshaya Patra Foundation. “It is about providing opportunities for children from economically challenged backgrounds to get a good education and thereby realize their true potential.” Akshaya Patra is the world’s largest non-governmental organization (NGO) school meal program, according to the Limca Book of Records.

An estimated 45 million children do not attend school in India because they have to fend for themselves and their families. They typically end up with menial jobs. Without education, they remain in poverty. Many underprivileged children who do attend school remain impoverished because hunger and malnutrition prevent them from learning well. “We want to break this vicious cycle,” says the foundation’s vice chairman, Chanchalapati Das. “Our vision is that no child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.”

Having crossed the one million milestone last year, Akshaya Patra is working toward its next goal: to reach five million underprivileged children by 2020. But Madhu Pandit also envisions a larger social role. “We want to develop Akshaya Patra as a platform that other NGOs and social entrepreneurs can adopt and replicate.” He and Chanchalapati, engineers by education, are also full-time missionaries at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), a Krishna temple in Bangalore.

In a congratulatory letter in November 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama noted that in just a few years, Akshaya Patra had become the single largest feeding program in the world. “Your example of using advanced technologies in central kitchens … is an imaginative approach that has the potential to serve as a model for other countries,” he wrote.

Compared with other NGOs that struggle to survive, how has Akshaya Patra managed to reach so many? According to S. Nayana Tara, professor of public systems at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, the foundation’s “management and operating model, the quality and delivery of services, and the commitment of the team are all key differentiators.” To reach its next goal of reaching five million children “and to become a role model, it needs to continue to build on all these fronts. It has to be a very well-orchestrated program.” Nayana Tara, who has conducted impact studies on the program, adds that in moving ahead, Akshaya Patra needs to pay special attention to capacity-building at all levels by bringing in professionals with different strengths. And it needs to put robust measures of service quality in place.

Says Devi Shetty, a cardiac surgeon who is founder of the Bangalore-based heart hospital Narayana Hrudayalaya: “[Akshaya Patra’s] biggest strength is that they are very conscious of every penny that is spent and they spend it extremely judiciously. They are fulfilling a great social need.” Shetty, whose hospital has made quality cardiac care widely affordable, points out that Akshaya Patra is run like a business, even though there is no profit motive. Shetty is a member of Akshaya Patra’s board of advisers.

Akshaya Patra — which in Sanskrit means the “inexhaustible vessel” — began in 2000 as a small initiative of ISKCON-Bangalore. The temple cooks meals — called prasadam — for thousands of devotees on a daily basis. Mohandas Pai, director at software giant Infosys Technologies, suggested to Madhu Pandit, chairman of ISKCON, that the temple take on the responsibility of feeding underprivileged children in nearby schools. Pai, who later became a program trustee, offered to bear part of the cost personally. Madhu Pandit agreed and the temple started cooking and distributing food to 1,500 students across five schools in the city. Word of mouth soon led to requests pouring in from other schools.

A year later, to avoid religious overtones, Akshaya Patra registered as an independent and secular charitable trust. In 2003, the government of Karnataka started its own midday meal in line with a Supreme Court decree that such programs be implemented by all state governments. The Karnataka government invited NGOs to become implementing partners and Akshaya Patra responded. It now partners with seven state governments.

Funding Requirements

While most other NGOs fit their infrastructure and meal costs within the state government funding, Akshaya Patra’s state government funding accounts for about half of meal costs. Akshaya Patra raises the rest from institutions such as ISKCON, its trustees, corporations and individual donors.

The cost difference, Madhu Pandit says, is because of the superior quality and unlimited quantity of the Akshaya Patra meal. The meal typically includes rice or chapattis (wheat pancakes), sambar (a vegetable- and lentil-based gravy dish) or dal (a lentil-based dish) and curd, and contains 550 calories. Nayana Tara says that “what the government provides by way of a midday meal is at best a snack of sorts. Akshaya Patra, on the other hand, gives a complete, wholesome and unlimited meal.” Third-party studies have documented the positive impact of Akshaya Patra meals by way of increased enrollment, better student health and improved academic performance.

“In the last financial year [2008-2009], the average cost of an Akshaya Patra meal was Rs. 4.68 (US$0.10), of which the government funded around Rs. 2.64. This means that to feed one million children, we needed donations of around Rs 20 lakh (US$43,000) per school day. Since then, the costs have gone up further,” Chanchalapati says. Akshaya Patra has also spent more than Rs. 60 crore (US$12.9 million) in setting up its kitchens. The kitchens are core to the program’s operations, and to its success. Unlike in most other midday meal programs, where the cooking takes place at the school or in small set-ups, Akshaya Patra’s kitchens are highly automated and centralized to allow for scale. This minimizes manual handling and ensures high standards of hygiene.

Akshaya Patra has 14 such kitchens, most of which are designed to prepare 50,000 or 100,000 meals per day. Two of its biggest — in Hubli and Bellary (both in Karnataka) — can cook 250,000 meals per day. Each Akshaya Patra kitchen is headed by two full-time ISKCON missionaries and typically has 150 to 300 employees. The kitchens open at 2:30 a.m. and cooking starts at 3:00 a.m. The first vehicle carrying food rolls out at 5:30 a.m. It typically takes about five hours to cook 100,000 Akshaya Patra meals. “Our centralized kitchen model leverages technology and innovations to maximize operational and cost efficiencies,” says program director Chitranga Chaitanya Das, who is also a full-time missionary at ISKCON and an engineer.

For instance, Akshaya Patra uses customized industrial steam generators and specifically designed vegetable cutting machines that can process hundreds of kilograms of vegetables per hour. It has imported a Blagdon Pump (typically used in chocolate processing for pumping liquid chocolate) from the United Kingdom and is using it to pump out excess water while cooking rice. In locations where, in keeping with local preferences, the meals include chapattis, Akshaya Patra uses customized machines that can prepare up to 40,000 per hour.

One of Akshaya Patra’s most striking innovations is its three-tier kitchens based on gravity flow. In these kitchens, the cleaned rice, which is kept in a silo on the ground floor, is first lifted into a smaller silo on the third floor via bucket elevators. The rice is then dropped to the second floor through a computer-controlled flow valve. The washing of the rice and lentils and the cutting of vegetables is done on the second floor. These are then dropped through a number of stainless steel chutes to vessels on the first floor where the cooking is done. The cooked food is similarly dropped to the ground floor, where it is packed into airtight stainless steel containers and loaded into custom-designed grid vehicles. At present, Akshaya Patra has three such gravity kitchens — one each in Bangalore, Hubli and Bellary. For its innovative use of technology to benefit humanity, it won the Tech Award Laureate 2009 from the San Jose, California-based Tech Museum.

Work in Rural Areas

These large kitchens, however, have a limitation: They are not suitable for feeding schoolchildren in rural and other outlying areas. There aren’t large enough numbers of children in smaller villages to make large-scale production feasible, and bad roads make it too difficult for food to be distributed widely.

To remedy that, Akshaya Patra has also adopted decentralized kitchens. Under this model, the program identifies self-help groups of women in villages who cook and distribute Akshaya Patra meals in small quantities. Akshaya Patra provides these groups with the ingredients and the required set-up by way of place, fuel and vessels. It also provides them with training in cooking, nutrition, hygiene and bookkeeping, and monitors them on a regular basis. The decentralized kitchens are located in Rajasthan, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh and extend to tribal-dominated communities in more than 300 villages.

The decentralized model feeds around 50,000 children, less than 5% of Akshaya Patra’s total reach. But in order to achieve the program’s target of five million, Madhu Pandit seeks a more equitable combination of approaches. “By 2020, we hope to reach one million children through our decentralized kitchens,” he says. Apart from increasing penetration in rural India, Akshaya Patra’s low-cost decentralized model has another significant social impact: It generates jobs for women in these remote areas.

To gear up for the next leap, Madhu Pandit is building the organization’s leadership, bringing in managers who can deliver corporate best practices and infuse a new level of professionalism. He is putting together teams for fund-raising, business transformation, marketing and image building. “We had been doing all of these [things] earlier, but in an ad hoc manner. We realize that in order to move to the next level, we need to have a more organized and systemic approach,” he says.

Take funding, for instance. From now on, Akshaya Patra will start operations in a new state or city only if it has a commitment from local industrialists and other bodies to fund capital costs and recurring costs for three years. During the three-year period, it expects to establish its presence strongly enough to enable it to raise funds on its own. The goal is to make each kitchen self-sustaining in terms of fund-raising. “To meet the larger numbers it is essential that we put a robust and predictable fund-raising process in place,” says Pai of Infosys. Ajay Parekh, executive director for strategy, adds that funds will be raised specifically for business improvements.

With the current commitment of feeding more than a million children, the foundation’s top management is veering toward having a minimum cash balance of six months’ expenses. “This is more a safety mechanism to avoid cash flow mismatch,” Pai says.

Another key priority is to ensure greater cross-pollination of ideas and practices within the organization and greater standardization in the kitchens, be it facility layout, operating practices, equipment specifications or sourcing. There are moves toward building strong vendor relationships (including direct relationships with farmers) and maximizing centralized procurement wherever possible for equipment and raw material. “Currently, each kitchen does its own sourcing. Consolidated buying will help us to drive our costs down further and increase our operational efficiencies,” Parekh says. “In the case of equipment and systems, it will also give us a greater say in the design aspect.”

Certifying Kitchens

Akshaya Patra is also working toward getting all of its kitchens certified by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization). Six already are, and the plan is to get the others certified in 12 to 18 months. Other certifications are in the offing. Akshaya Patra is in talks with SGS, the multinational food certifying agency, to conduct regular hygiene audits and with a top consulting firm for process audits of its kitchens. There is also talk of introducing Lean and Six Sigma methodologies.

Raj Kondur, chairman of Nirvana Business Solutions and a trustee of the Akshaya Patra Foundation, points out: “It is very important that nonprofit organizations are held to the same standards that the best corporates follow, especially if they want to [increase] scale and address large issues. If we can successfully marry the rigor of the corporate world and the commitment of an NGO, it can be a great force multiplier.” Indeed, having the support and thought leadership of professionals such as Kondur, Pai and Shetty has played a significant role in Akshaya Patra’s success.

Once Akshaya Patra gets its new act together, it plans to share know-how and standards with other NGOs. “We may even have Akshaya Patra audits and certifications,” says Parekh. “This can help [other NGOs] to increase their efficiencies and also boost their fund-raising capacity.” But before it takes this leap, the foundation needs to work on dealing with the change management that will crop up through its own transformation — without losing its vision as an NGO.

Even now, Akshaya Patra is not without critics. Some believe its model of centralized kitchens is faulty. “Akshaya Patra is not only very capital-intensive, it also does not fulfill the government’s midday meal program’s second objective of creating employment,” says Manoj Kumar, who heads the Naandi Foundation, a Hyderabad-based NGO that also runs a midday meal program. Others are critical of Akshaya Patra’s urban focus and its spending on marketing and fund-raising. Voices also have been raised against Madhu Pandit and other ISKCON missionaries associated with Akshaya Patra for allegedly diverting funds collected on behalf of Akshaya Patra to buy land for ISKCON.

Madhu Pandit and other independent trustees have strongly denied the allegations. In a written statement responding to allegations by D.K. Shivakumar, a member of the legislative assembly, the independent trustees have said: “APF’s [Akshaya Patra Foundation’s] objective from the beginning has been to set a benchmark for transparency and governance for such program. To this end, the books of APF have been audited by BSR & Co. [a member firm of KPMG], a well-known accounting firm. Regular internal audits are also conducted in all branches on a monthly basis. All of APF’s accounts are shared with supporters, government officials and the general public regularly and are freely available on our website.”

Madhu Pandit, meanwhile, is taking the controversies and criticism in stride. “Akshaya Patra is going through a phase where it is embracing a new level of professionalism and working toward reaching greater heights. Anything new is difficult to digest, and we have to learn to deal with the criticism. If India can ensure that its children are well-fed and given a good education, then one generation later we may not even need this program.”