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How to feed lunch to 130,000 school kids

November 27, 2014 by Lynn Heinisch

A firsthand look at the world's largest nonprofit midday meal program.
Man in factory stirring giant steaming vat.

The Akshaya Patra organization kitchen in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. The organization runs the world’s largest nonprofit midday meal program. Photo: PATH/Adarsh Minocha.

Editor’s note: Recently, PATH friends and board members traveled to India to see programs that improve children’s nutrition, immunize children against the deadly Japanese encephalitis virus, and help women’s groups save and borrow money to bolster their families’ health, education, and earnings.

Tuesday, November 11—At 5:30 this morning, I learned how to feed 130,000 Indian kids lunch.

It takes a three-story kitchen, with steamy cauldrons holding 1,200 liters of lentils each. A conveyor belt that spans across two rooms, churning out hot rotis by the hundreds. Dozens of men pouring and stirring, and loading stacks upon stacks of metal containers with rice.

It takes 79 trucks and a dispatch operation that routes each truck to roughly 28 schools, covering 72 miles with such precision that every meal arrives by the 1:00 p.m. lunch break.

And, most importantly, it takes a team of people appalled that 40 percent of Indian children are undernourished.

The Akshaya Patra organization, whose kitchen we visited in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, is the world’s largest midday meal program run by a nonprofit. Currently, the group feeds more than 1.4 million children across ten Indian states.

“To sit with the kids, spend time with the kids, and see their smiles, that is what it’s all about,” said Sreenivasa Rao, assistant general manager for operations. Akshaya Patra’s widespread reach positions PATH and one of India’s largest food-processing companies, Usher Agro Limited, to help children across the country by introducing fortified rice into the program.

PATH’s Ultra Rice® technology packs vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc, vitamin A, folic acid, and other B vitamins, into fortified grains that are mixed with traditional rice. PATH advanced the technology and licensed it to Usher Agro and producers in other countries.

Clinical trials found that children between 5 and 12 years old who ate fortified rice showed a significant increase in iron stores. This is important because 75 percent of Indian children under 5 suffer from iron deficiency, which reduces cognitive function, and nearly half of Indian children under 5 are stunted due to micronutrient deficiencies.

The United Nations World Food Program uses Ultra Rice in the eastern state of Odisha for a meal program that feeds 98,000 children. And Akshaya Patra plans to serve Ultra Rice to 450,000 children across 2,600 schools in the southwestern state of Karnataka.

Factory worker standing in front of conveyer belts and hundreds of bags of rice.

PATH licensed our Ultra Rice technology to Usher Agro. Soon the fortified rice will reach 450,000 children across 2,600 schools in the southwestern state of Karnataka. Photo: PATH/Adarsh Minocha.

As we toured the Usher Agro factory in Mathura, the company’s Vipin Malhotra described their plans to produce and sell Ultra Rice both domestically and internationally once the Indian food safety regulatory agency grants approval to do so.

Over the din of mixers, extruders, and conveyor belts, we watched as the rice was produced.

“If the country gets the standards, if kids start getting the food, if Usher Agro gets to start exporting their products to other parts of the world, that’s a great role for PATH to have played,” said Tarun Vij, PATH’s country leader for India.

Hand holding rice grains.

PATH transferred the technology to Usher Agro for no fee, with the company agreeing to provide the rice to public-sector programs at a preferential price. Photo: PATH/Adarsh Minocha.

PATH transferred the technology to Usher Agro for no fee, with the company agreeing to provide the rice to public-sector programs at a preferential price. PATH also provided technical support to Usher Agro for procuring and installing the necessary equipment and standardizing the manufacturing process for fortified rice.

Usher Agro has the capacity to process 1 million tons of rice per year, Malhotra said, and the worldwide market for rice continues to grow. “We see a very bright future overall for fortified rice,” he said.

As for PATH’s involvement once Usher Agro receives the governmental approval that enables them to start selling Ultra Rice in mass quantities?

Board member Kevin Reilly, who joined the PATH Journeys trip, summed it up like this: “You put some technology in, you build someone up to be self-sustaining, and then you can hand it over to the local community.”

And move on to the next innovation.

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