Here comes an interview with Mr Sundeep Talwar, CMO, The Akshaya Patra Foundation.
1. This World Food Day, 2021, the theme is "Our Actions are our Future". Indeed, at this very vulnerable and critical time in world history, this is key to our success with managing food, food security, and hunger. What is the new vision at Akshaya Patra and what are you now aiming to achieve?
The observance of ‘World Food Day’ is of great significance considering that its objective is to promote global awareness and action for those who suffer from hunger, and to highlight the need to ensure healthy diets for all.
As FAO states ‘The future of food is in our hands’. The nutrition gap has widened due to the pandemic and there is an urgent need to focus on nutrition and related aspects. Akshaya Patra has always strived to ensure that children have sustained access to food and nutritionthrough initiatives such as the MDM Scheme and ICDS Anganwadi feeding programme.
In a post-COVID world, the importance of ‘nutritious food’ will play a crucial role in addressing the need for food security and nutritious diets for all.
Interventions, such as menu redesigning for higher nutritional value and additional nutrient-dense supplementation, will have to be planned accordingly taking into account the pandemic as well as post-pandemic scenarios. The current situation also makes a strong case for fast-tracking the breakfast program mentioned in the National Education Policy 2020. Our focus will have to be on delivering adequate nutrition through a safe environment.
Our vision is to ensure that “No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger”. While we are working towards eradicating classroom hunger, we are also looking at other initiatives to provide holistic growth opportunities for the children.
2. I believe almost 40% of the world's population cannot afford a healthy diet. At Akshaya Patra, how much do you focus on not just filing stomachs, but also focusing on healthy food?
We have always endeavoured to uphold children’s Right to Food and Right to Education by serving them freshly cooked, nutritious and hygienic mid-day meals every school day. As of March 2020, we are serving over 1.8 million beneficiaries across 13 states and one union territory. If hunger is a barrier to education and consequently, a better life, the mid-day meal represents hope. Over the years, the assurance of a meal has prompted many people to send their children to school to get an education instead of sending them to work to support the family. The programme has played a crucial role in bringing millions of children to the classroom, thus giving them a chance to break the vicious cycle of poverty. It has helped promote socialisation and gender equality.
The Programme has also helped address classroom hunger. When children are hungry, they are unable to concentrate on classroom activities, thus defeating the purpose of schooling. Mid-day meals boost their nutrition profile, which, in turn, boosts their learning capacities and improves their academic performance. In boosting the foundational learning skills of millions of children across the country, the school feeding programme has put them on the path to a brighter future.
The assurance of a meal doesn’t just bring children to school but also contributes to their health and wellbeing by taking care of their nutritional requirements. In our capacity as the implementing partner of the MDM Programme, we have always strived to provide children a diversified and nutrient-rich staple to enhance their nutritional and health status.
Over the years, we have personally witnessed the transformation the school feeding programme has brought about in the lives of many children, their families and the community as a whole.
3. The linkage between hunger, the lack of access to food and poverty is age old. What are the key facets of your work that addresses this difficult challenge?
Hunger is a massive problem in the country, so it is imperative that the solution for the same is also massive. When we set out to address the issue of classroom hunger, we knew that we would face several challenges while implementing a programme of this scale. Luckily for us, every time we faced a problem, we were able to find a solution for it either in the form of people or technology.
Our partnership with the Government of India and various State Governments, along with the persistent support from corporates, individual donors, and well-wishers have helped us to grow from serving just 1,500 children in 5 schools in the year 2000 to serving 1.8 million children.
Today, Akshaya Patra is the world’s largest (not-for-profit run) Mid-Day Meal Programme serving wholesome food every school day to over 1.8 million children from 19,039 schools across 13 states & 1 Union Territory of India.
At Akshaya Patra, we understand the crucial role of food assistance in humanitarian relief efforts during emergencies. We have always strived to use our infrastructure and resources for relief efforts during crises—be it relief feeding in flood-affected regions of the country or beyond the borders in Nepal during the earthquake of 2014.
We believe in collective efforts to provide relief to people in need, and therefore, have always endeavoured to work with the Government and donors to extend food assistance to vulnerable populations, such as daily wagers, slum dwellers, migrant workers, rough sleepers, etc. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have served over 187 million meals to people across the country in the form of cooked food and grocery kits.
If we are to address issues such as hunger, malnutrition, or lack of education in the country, we need to work together. More and more citizens are realizing this and coming forward to do their bit for a cause that they strongly believe in.
4. This World Food Day, 2021, with a world tired of fighting an unprecedented pandemic, what would you like to say to the people of India?
The effects of the pandemic have hit our most vulnerable communities and the children – in terms of education and much required early age nourishment. Hence, there is a need for more attention and stakeholder involvement and participation in resolving the key issues of hidden hunger etc.
We are at a pivotal point in human history. Humanity has incredible talent, huge wealth and infinite imagination. We must put these assets to work to create a more equal and sustainable economy that benefits all. Improving education and nutrition of the society is key agenda in global development and is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.