The week-long restrictions in Maharashtra have brought back memories of mass migration and food security issues from last year. For many years, the Akshaya Patra Foundation has served lunch through its partnerships with various government interventions. Speak with The Indian ExpressShridhar Venkat, CEO of the foundation, explained the need to reassess various nutrition-related activities.

Between the last lockdown and the current lockdown, have you seen an increase in the number of people who have relied on your services for their daily meals? How many centers or meals do you currently supply compared to last year?

In contrast to the previous year, the closure this year was region-specific. Last year, we started our relief efforts in March and scaled them as needed to reach vulnerable populations in 18 states and two union territories. At one point, we were giving out 10 servings of lakh a day in the form of cooked meals and essential food kits. In August 2020 we started distributing happiness kits to the beneficiaries of the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) program.

These kits included dry rations and educational materials to help focus on the children’s health and learning during school time pandemic. As the situation improved, we eventually stopped distributing cooked meals while distributing food and happiness kits continued.

Well that Covid-19 Cases have increased and various state governments are considering stricter containment measures. We have resumed the auxiliary feeding measures. We will increase it as needed in the coming days.

Akshaya Patra is funded by CSR. How was the response to your requests for volunteers? Did you find it difficult or easy to get raw materials for meals?

The response to our call for volunteers has been positive and supportive. It reaffirmed our belief that people should proactively reach out and band together to help those in need during difficult times.

Last year, sourcing raw materials during the lockdown has been a challenge. This time we were prepared for a similar scenario, so the availability of raw material was relatively easy. Our suppliers supported us very much throughout the project.

How do you see the PDS fighting malnutrition? Was it a success or a failure during the lockdown?

The government has used PDS to distribute grain to those in need at this hour of crisis. It was definitely a good move considering the pandemic has increased hunger. The central government distributed 5 kg of grain per person until November 2020. And it’s been difficult to do this for two months.

During the lockdown in Uttar Pradesh, families of school children who used PDS were provided with MDM rations as schools were closed for virtually the entire final school year. It helped families feed their children who missed them due to the school closure.

Akshaya Patra is also involved in the midday meals. How were students served in closed schools? Do you feel that all eligible students have received their meals or dry rations?

In order to alleviate childhood hunger caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and to support children from vulnerable communities, the Akshaya Patra Foundation has distributed happiness kits among the beneficiaries. It’s a unique set of essential foods and teaching aids.

Each kit focuses on nutrition as well as hygiene and education. The contents range from dry ration to hygiene products (such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, sanitary towels for girls, etc.) to learning material (activity books, colored pencils, etc.). By April 15, 2021, 10.17 lakh kits had been distributed to the foundation’s MDM beneficiaries in 39 locations across the country.

What political changes should be made to ensure that no Indian ever goes hungry?

At the political level, interventions for different nutrition programs need to be planned. Akshaya Patra is the implementation partner of the MDM program and the ICDS. These programs need to be improved taking into account the current situation as well as the post-Covid scenarios.

One step in this direction can be to redesign the MDM menu for higher nutritional value. An additional, nutritionally dense supplement for ICDS beneficiaries will also help fill the nutritional gap widened by the pandemic. The current scenario is also a strong argument in favor of speeding up the breakfast program recommended in the National Education Policy 2020. Given the criticality of the current situation, there is an urgent need to work together to address this issue.