Interventions needed for nutrition based welfare activities – Shridhar Venkat, CEO of The Akshaya Patra Foundation

With the rise in cases and various state governments contemplating stricter containment measures, Akshaya Patra Foundation has restarted the relief feeding operations and will scale them as needed in the days to come.

The lockdown has brought about the memories of mass migration and questions of food security. Over the last many years, the Akshaya Patra Foundation has been serving mid day meals through its partnerships with the various government interventions. While speaking to The Indian Express, Shridhar Venkat, CEO of the Foundation talked about the need of recalibration of various nutrition based activities.

Between the last and the present lockdown have you seen an increase in number of people who had to rely on your services for their daily meals? How many centres or meals are you catering to in the present lockdown as compared to the last year?

Unlike last year, the lockdown has been region-specific this year. Last year, we started our relief feeding endeavour in March and scaled it as needed, reaching vulnerable populations across 18 states and two union territories. At one point, we were distributing cumulative 10 lakh servings per day in the form of cooked meals and essential groceries kits. In August 2020, we started distributing Happiness Kits to the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Programme beneficiaries. These kits contained dry ration and educational supplies to focus on children’s health and learning during the pandemic. Eventually, as there was an improvement in the situation, we discontinued the distribution of cooked meals while the distribution of grocery kits and Happiness Kits continued. Now that the cases have started to rise and various State Governments are contemplating stricter containment measures, we have restarted the relief feeding operations. We will scale them as needed in the days to come.

Akshaya Patra is funded by CSR of companies. How has been the response to your calls for volunteer donations? Did you find it difficult or easy to get raw materials for the meals?

The response to our call for volunteer donations has been positive and supportive. It has 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 procurement of raw materials was challenging during the lockdown. This time we have been prepared for a similar scenario, and therefore, the availability of raw material has been relatively easy. Our suppliers have also been very supportive throughout the endeavour.

What is your take on the PDS system which is supposed to help fight malnutrition? Has it been a success or failure during the lockdowns?

The Government has used the PDS to distribute grains to the needy in this hour of crises. It has definitely been a good step considering that the pandemic has compounded hunger. The Central Government distributed 5 kg of grains per person till November 2020. And it has planned to do the same for two months now.

During the lockdown in Uttar Pradesh, MDM rations were provided to the family of the school-going children using PDS as schools were shut down practically for the whole of the last academic year. It helped the families to ensure nutrition for their children, which they were missing due to school closures.

Akshaya Patra also is involved in the mid day meal schemes. With schools closed how were they served? Do you feel all the eligible students got their meals or dry ration?

In an attempt to mitigate childhood hunger that has compounded due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to support the children from vulnerable communities, The Akshaya Patra Foundation has been distributing Happiness Kits among its beneficiary children. It is a one-of-its-kind kit of essential groceries and educational supplies. Each kit is designed to focus on nutrition as well as hygiene and education, with their contents ranging from dry ration to hygiene products (such as toothbrush, toothpaste, sanitary pads for girls, etc.) and learning material (such as activity books, crayons, etc.). As of April 15th, 2021, 10.17 lakh kits have been distributed to the Foundation’s MDM beneficiaries in 39 locations across the country.

What should be the policy level changes that need to be undertaken to ensure no Indian goes hungry ever?

At the policy level, interventions need to be planned for various nutrition welfare programmes. Akshaya Patra serves as the implementing partner of the MDM Scheme and ICDS. These programmes need to be enhanced taking into account the prevailing situation as well as post-COVID scenarios. One step towards this can be redesigning the MDM menu for higher nutritional value. Additional nutritionally dense supplementation for ICDS beneficiaries will also help in addressing the nutritional gap that has widened due to the pandemic. The current scenario also makes a strong case for fast-tracking the breakfast programme recommended in the National Education Policy 2020. COVID-19 pandemic has compounded hunger. Considering the criticality of the prevailing situation, there is an urgent need to work together to address the same.

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