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Economy

Indian foundation helps fill minds by filling stomachs

Madhu Pandit Dasa, chairman of Akshaya Patra, visits a school in Bangalore at lunchtime.

NEW DELHI -- After doing her chores each morning, Akshita, a 14-year-old Indian girl, heads to the kitchen to check whether there is any curry left over from the previous night. Her father, a construction worker, and mother, who works at a sewing plant, together earn only 9,000 rupees ($135) a month. Often, the curry pot is empty.

"But I immediately remember the midday meal we have at school," Akshita said.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, provides meals to the school Akshita attends in Bangalore, in southern India. On the day she was interviewed, lunch consisted of a mountain of white rice topped with vegetable curry and yogurt.

All told, the foundation supplies meals to 1.5 million children at 11,000 schools across India. The foundation's Hindi name translates to "unlimited pot."

It all started in 2000, recalled Madhu Pandit Dasa, the foundation's chairman. That year, he met with T.V. Mohandas Pai, former chief financial officer at Indian information technology company Infosys. "He came to see me and recommended, 'Why don't you feed children at schools?'" Dasa said.

Dasa, now 59, is the chief priest at a well-known Hindu temple. Aware that the temple served free meals to visitors, Pai suggested that Dasa go a step further. At the time, schools were not required to provide lunch and many Indian children had to fight hunger while studying. Kids would frequently quit elementary school to go to work.

In July 2000, Dasa began supplying 1,500 meals -- cooked in the temple's kitchen -- to five schools in Bangalore. Word spread quickly, and he started receiving requests from other schools.

He set up the foundation in 2001 to collect donations. Today, it runs 24 central kitchens in 10 of India's 29 states. He noted that the foundation has "no religious agenda" and provides meals to Muslim schools as well.

"Transparency is the main reason why people are contributing to our service," said Dasa, who is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay -- the alma mater of numerous business leaders. The foundation uses KPMG's auditing service and complies with the International Financial Reporting Standards.

Donations have increased since the Indian government in April 2014 began requiring big companies to devote 2% of their profits to corporate social responsibility. In the year ended March 2015, Akshaya Patra took in 1.47 billion rupees, double the amount two years earlier.

Unlimited demand

Aside from providing meals, Akshaya Patra's biggest contribution may have been serving as an impetus for the government to make school lunches compulsory. "All the politicians, everybody knew about us," Dasa said. "It became their inspiration to fight for compulsory midday meals."

Something is working: According to United Nations data, the rate of enrollment at Indian elementary schools has stayed at 99% since 2007, up sharply from 86% in 2002. The provision of school meals "supports education a lot," Dasa said. Still, the foundation's work is far from finished. 

"The midday meal is the only meal for almost all students," said the principal of Akshita's school. Akshaya Patra continues to field requests because its meals consist of three dishes, while ordinary public school lunches have only two. With government subsidies on top of donations, the foundation is able to set aside 9 rupees per meal.

The foundation is building eight more central kitchens and aims to serve 5 million children by 2020. But "government schools in India have nearly 120 million children, so 5 million is only a few percent," Dasa said. "Demand is unlimited."

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