Interventions needed for nutrition-based wellness activities – Shridhar Venkat, CEO of Akshaya Patra Foundation
The confinement sparked memories of mass migration and food security issues. In recent years, the Akshaya Patra Foundation has served midday meals through its partnerships with various government interventions. In an interview with The Indian Express, Shridhar Venkat, CEO of the Foundation, spoke about the need to recalibrate various nutrition-based activities.
Between the last and the present confinement have you noticed an increase in the number of people who had to rely on your services for their daily meals? How many centers or meals are you handling in the current lockdown compared to last year?
Unlike last year, the lockdown has been region specific this year. Last year, we started our emergency power effort in March and scaled it up as needed, reaching vulnerable populations in 18 states and two Union Territories. At one point, we were handing out a total of 10 lakh servings per day in the form of cooked meals and essential grocery kits. In August 2020, we started distributing happiness kits to beneficiaries of the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) program. These kits contained dry rations and educational supplies to focus on children’s health and learning during the pandemic. Finally, as the situation improved, we stopped the distribution of ready meals while the distribution of grocery kits and Happiness kits continued. Now that cases have started to increase and various state governments are considering tougher containment measures, we have restarted emergency power operations. We will adapt them as needed in the coming days.
Akshaya Patra is funded by corporate CSR. What was the response to your calls for voluntary donations? Did you find it difficult or easy to obtain raw materials for meals?
The response to our call for donations from volunteers has been positive and encouraging. This once again validated our belief that people will proactively come forward and join hands to help those in need during difficult times.
Last year, the supply of raw materials was difficult during containment. This time we were prepared for a similar scenario and therefore the availability of the raw material was relatively easy. Our suppliers have also been very supportive throughout the business.
How do you see the PDS system supposed to help fight malnutrition? Was it a success or a failure during the lockdowns?
The government has used the PDS to distribute grain to the needy at this time of crisis. This has certainly been a good step as the pandemic has made hunger worse. The central government has distributed 5 kg of grain per person until November 2020. And it has been planning to do the same for two months now.
During lockdown in Uttar Pradesh, MDM rations were provided to the families of schoolchildren using the PDS, as schools were closed for most of the last school year. He helped families provide nutrition for their children, which they lacked due to school closures.
Akshaya Patra is also involved in the midday meal programs. With the schools closed, how were they served? Do you think all eligible students received their meals or dry ration?
In an effort to alleviate the hunger among children which has worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to support children from vulnerable communities, the Akshaya Patra Foundation distributed happiness kits among its beneficiary children. This is a one-of-a-kind kit of essential groceries and educational supplies. Each kit is designed to focus on nutrition as well as hygiene and education, with contents ranging from dry ration to hygiene products (such as toothbrush, toothpaste, sanitary napkins for girls, etc.) and learning materials (such as activity books, pencils, etc.). As of April 15, 2021, 10.17 lakh kits have been distributed to MDM beneficiaries of the Foundation in 39 locations across the country.
What should be the political level changes that need to be made to ensure that no Indian ever goes hungry?
At the policy level, interventions should be planned for various nutritional well-being programs. Akshaya Patra is the implementing partner of the MDM program and the ICDS. These programs must be improved taking into account the current situation as well as post-COVID scenarios. A step towards this may be the overhaul of the MDM menu for higher nutritional value. Additional nutritionally dense supplementation for ICDS beneficiaries will also help fill the nutritional gap that has widened due to the pandemic. The current scenario also pleads for an acceleration of the breakfast program recommended in the National Education Policy 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened hunger. Given the criticality of the current situation, it is urgent to work together to remedy it.