Before the onset of Covid-19, the Bengaluru-based Akshaya Patra Foundation ran the world’s largest not-for-profit mid-day meal programme, reaching out to 1.8 million children from over 19,000 schools in 12 states and two Union territories. But as the pandemic ravaged the country and schools shut, it was time to change direction. With job losses, hunger and disease all around, the foundation decided to use its extensive resources for an equally challenging cause—Covid relief.

“We quickly diverted our strategy from ‘food for education’ to ‘food for relief’,” says Shridhar Venkat, CEO, Akshaya Patra Foundation. The idea was to reach across to the needy in a three-pronged manner: distributing four cooked meals a day to Covid patients, migrant labourers, and the jobless; giving out ration kits that contained 42 meals for an adult, consisting of five kilos of rice, a kilo of tur dal, half a litre of cooking oil, spices, sambar and rasam powder, and some vegetables; and distributing ‘happiness kits’ for children, containing biscuits, ragi flour, dental kits and sanitary pack for girls, and so on.

The foundation ensures that the essential groceries in the food relief kits are based on the local palate of the regions where they are distributed. Recently, Akshaya Patra started a Covid Relief Feeding Centre at KR Market in Bengaluru, where 1,000 free cooked meals are provided to Covid frontline warriors, industrial labourers and the poor every day. It is planning to start 3-4 similar feeding centres in other parts of the city.

Since the pandemic hit India, Akshaya Patra has delivered over 124 million servings, says Venkat. This includes 60.7 million cooked meals, over 1 million essential grocery kits (that can provide over 40 million meal servings) and 1.06 million ‘happiness kits’ with dry rations (equivalent to over 20 million meal servings), apart from hygiene products and educational supplies. The meals are made at Akshaya Patra’s 57 kitchens across 13 states. The kitchens have a formidable capacity to make 2.2 million cooked meals in just one shift.

This year, just as the foundation was getting ready to welcome kids back to school, the second Covid wave struck. Akshaya Patra tied up with several state governments to feed Covid patients in state-run hospitals and distributed grocery and ration kits through government channels. Venkat says the foundation’s fundraising events received massive support from individual and corporate donors. Over 100,000 individual donors came forward to supp­ort Covid relief through Akshaya Patra’s online platform.

Operating during the lockdown hasn’t been smooth. Grains and vegetables had to be procured for cooking meals, mills needed to be open and cardboard boxes and bags were required in large quantities. While local governments helped with raw material procurement and in allowing mills to be operational, FMCG company ITC provided paper pulp from which boxes were made to distribute the grocery kits.

Using its team of 7,000 staff, the foundation is looking to expand its scope of work by setting up community kitchens and, if possible, to increase the production of meals because the requirement keeps on rising. Recently, the foundation came to know about the plight of three orphaned girls in Assam and arranged a steady flow of provisions for them. “Those, for me, are the most satisfying moments,” says Venkat, who has spent 16 years now with Akshaya Patra, after working with several leading corporations. “I will be happy if we can activate all our three shifts so that 5-6 million meals are sent out to the needy.”

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