|Malnutrition, classroom hunger and school dropouts continue to be grave concerns in India [EPA]
Surrounded by lush green wheat and yellow, flowering mustard fields at Ekdanta primary school, it is noon and the 57 children in two combined classes are fidgety - impatient for the school-served midday meal.
The hot meals are served by the Akshaya Patra Foundation, understood to be the largest non-profit in India, which covers 1.2million children in more than 8,000 schools across the country in partnership with the government's school meal programme.
A show of hands in Ekdanta indicates that one quarter of students has not had breakfast before school.
Eight-year-old Nagina Singh has not had even the glass of buffalo milk that other children have had before school. "Both my parents left for daily wage labour early in the morning and there was nothing at home to eat," said Singh.
Headteacher Chandrasen Singh said: "This is not uncommon among the 85 marginal and share-farmer families populating Ekdanta."
The small dusty village is 170km from Delhi in the northern Indian Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh State.
Akshaya Patra, which in Hindu mythology refers to an inexhaustible food vessel, feeds 1.2million school children every day from 18 centralised kitchens - 15 automated, across eight states. Six of the kitchens are certified under the International Food Safety Management System standard ISO 22000:2005.
Nagina is one among the 169,000 children across 1,516 schools that are fed by Akshaya Patra's Vrindavan unit - 10km from the Hindu pilgrimage town of Mathura. Karnataka's Hubli kitchen - 420km from Akshaya Patra's Bangalore headquarters - is their largest, feeding 176,000 children in 779 schools.
Intelligently engineered, automated kitchens have been Akshaya Patra's cornerstones for achieving remarkable scale and efficiency in delivering school meals. Using a hub-and-spoke model, mass quantities of food cooked in these automated kitchens are distributed in smaller amounts to individual schools in the surrounding areas.
Hunger in the classroom
Malnutrition, classroom hunger and school dropout rates continue to be grave concerns in India, making Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) one and two - to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, and to achieve universal primary education - difficult to achieve by the 2015 deadline.
The global hunger index published by the International Food Policy Research Institute ranked India - with 42 per cent of the world's underweight children aged under five - 67 among 84 countries in 2010.
In 2001, the Supreme Court of India directed governments to provide cooked meals in all state-run primary schools to address these concerns.
In 2000, Akshaya Patra was already feeding 1,500 school children in Bangalore. "Within a month of starting we received requests to feed 100,000 children," said 37-year-old Narasimha Dasa, a mechanical engineer by training.
That did not look easy, but Akshaya Patra is unique in that its missionary cadres are teaming with qualified men from some of India's top tech institutes.
In Vrindavan, particularly difficult was rolling out thousands of chappatis - Indian unleavened flat wheat bread - in time for the noon meal, in schools scattered up to 60km from the centralised kitchen.
"Akshaya Patra is determined to serve habitual food so that children are attracted and nourished," said Madhuvrata Dasa, another engineer who works with Akshaya Patra.
"We approached a biscuit maker in Punjab, provided the design and six months later in 2003 installed a machine turning out 10,000 chappatis an hour, without any manual input," says Narasimha Dasa. The machine kneads the dough, rolling out a layer of dough on a metal conveyer belt, cutting round shapes, roasting them perfectly.
Pan-India operations have grown 18 per cent during 2009 and 2010. Vrindavan's upgraded chappati-maker now produces 36,000 pieces an hour and 230,000 everyday, says Amit Kumar, a production supervisor.
School lunch model
The cooking starts at three in the morning with vegetables being diced. By five, inside one of the three kitchens, the aroma of boiling lentils and vegetables fills the air as steam from seven rice cookers casts a translucent haze.
A team of 55 helpers, 5 cooks and another 5 supervisors manage the day's cooking.
"In six hours, the kitchen is geared to cook close to 6,000kilograms of rice, five tonnes of vegetables and 6,000 litres of sambar - a lentil and vegetable soup," says Ganesh, who decides the daily menu.
At eight in the morning, the kitchen's frontcourt is teeming with attendants and heat-insulated, dust-free delivery vans - 60 of them with smiling children emblazoned on their doors.
Food is packed in 3,000 insulated steel containers, weighed for the correct quantities that will feed exact numbers - ascertained from each school's roll call, so leftovers are minimised.
Besides a 2007 Harvard study for precise time management, the non-profit's innovative technical and logistic efficiency to bring about quality standardisation and cost-effectiveness has been widely appreciated as a school lunch model.
Partnering with the government, Akshaya Patra gets half of the six rupee (11 US cent) per meal cost from the government in the form of grain. Accordingly, the government contribution for the Vrindavan unit's 169,000 children in a six-day school week is roughly 66,700 US dollars.
Release of funds and grain from the government, however, sometimes takes two to three months. "To sustain huge daily expenditure while waiting for reimbursement is a difficult proposition for private players. In 2009 we had to even take large loans to keep the kitchen fires going," said Narasimha Dasa.
Despite operational difficulties Akshaya Patra aims to feed 5million children by 2020.
This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.