At a fundraising dinner in Northern Virginia on Sunday (23.Sep.2012), Murthy Law Firm founder and president, Sheela Murthy, helped raise $250,000 from an enthusiastic gathering of the region’s IndianAmerican business elite, all to benefit the Akshaya Patra Foundation. The Bangalore-based nonprofit serves hot lunches to more than 1.4 million school children every day, in ten Indian states.
During the fundraising portion of the evening, Ms. Murthy rallied the audience with a heartfelt and stirring appeal. She urged them to share their good fortune, to help Akshaya Patra provide food to hungry children, so they can concentrate on their studies and succeed in school. The audience responded with tremendous generosity, inspired in part by Ms. Murthy’s example. Through the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, she and her husband, Vasant Nayak, donated $25,000 – more than double their original pledge – to show their commitment to the good works of Akshaya Patra’s.
Their gift was further increased through the generosity of Narayana Murthy (no relation to Sheela Murthy) founder and chairman emeritus of the Indian IT giant, Infosys. Addressing a packed house of nonresident Indians who found success in the United States, Mr. Murthy spoke of their responsibility to give back to the homeland that gave them so much. The capstone of his argument was irresistible: he promised to double every donation made that evening. The audience responded in kind, pledging $125,000 in a matter of minutes. Thanks to Mr. Murthy’s matching funds, overall receipts hit $250,000 – enough for Akshaya Patra to feed well over 16,600 students for a year, at the staggeringly low cost of $15 per student, per year.
Akshaya Patra, which means “the bottomless feeding vessel,” was founded in 2000, committed to a single, simple idea: that no child should be deprived of an education because of hunger. Making good on that commitment has been anything but simple, but the program’s success is a testament to Indian ingenuity, creativity, and technological prowess.
Addressing the gathering, the noted IndianAmerican entrepreneur and philanthropist, Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, pointed out that more than 100 million Indian children need to be fed each day at school. Undaunted by the scale of the problem, he said, Akshaya Patra rose to the challenge, devising a unique solution that is equal parts nonprofit compassion and private sector know-how. It has built a system of centralized kitchens – food factories, essentially – that mass-produce meals in scrupulously hygienic conditions. Workers pack the lunches in tamper-proof insulated containers, and ship them to schools each day, in time for lunch, through a fleet of specially designed delivery vans. In Akshaya Patra’s ultra-modern kitchen, a single machine can crank out 1,000 servings of rice in 15 minutes, while another can make 40,000 chapatti flatbreads per hour, each according to the regional cuisine.
According to Mr. Deshpande, Akshaya Patra has been successful in scaling up its operations because it has constantly squeezed out inefficiencies and controlled costs, using the latest insights from the business world to better manage logistics, supply chain, and the ecological footprint of its facilities. For instance: to save energy, the central kitchens use gravity to move food through the production process; to save water, waste water from cooking is used for washing the vans; to save fuel, mathematicians have worked out the most efficient delivery routes for their vans; to protect the integrity of the food supply, Akshaya Patra designed its own system to clean rice before it enters the production stream.
Despite its industrial scale, Akshaya Patra’s approach is anything but one-size-fits-all. Although each central kitchen provides a hot lunch to 150,000 students every day, the meals are geared to local food preferences, and the menu provides constant variety so that children won’t have to eat the same thing, day in and day out.
The ultimate measure of their success, according to Narayana Murthy, is the smile they bring to the face of each child who otherwise would go hungry. That said, Akshaya Patra is succeeding by many other metrics. An independent study found that more children come to school – and stay in school – when Akshaya Patra provides a daily meal. School performance and general health also improve for children receiving Akshaya Patra meals. And knowing their children will be fed at school, parents are less inclined instead to send their children to work.
As Mr. Deshpande observed: not only has Akshaya Patra pioneered a winning approach to fighting hunger and poverty while promoting education, it continues to serve as a laboratory for innovation, and a template for successful public-private cooperation. As Akshaya Patra scales up to meet its goal – to serve 5 million children a day by 2020 – it is bound to spin off more useful innovations in the process – innovations that will not just help India, but provide a model that can be implemented elsewhere in the world – and that is perhaps Akshaya Patra’s greatest gift.
Further information on the Akshaya Patra Foundation is available on the web at www.foodforeducation.org.
Copyright © 2012, SHEELA MURTHY. All Rights Reserved