“There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread,” goes the famous saying by the Mahatma. This could be the underlying philosophy at Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF) as it served more than 20 crore meals during the pandemic and played a key role in relief work during both the waves of the pandemic.
“People queued up from 3:00 in the morning to avail our Raksha kits (essential grocery) and get vaccinated under our incentivised vaccination drives,” says Shridhar Venkat, CEO of Akshaya Patra Foundation. “It just showed the importance of food for a huge section of our society and how deprived they are.”
Some of the biggest corporate, too, collaborated with the Foundation to extend their support in serving the needy and contribute to the relief work.
But when the lockdown brought all its 58 kitchens across the country to a grinding halt, Akshaya Patra quickly refurbished its strategy from ‘food for education’ to ‘food for relief’. It understood that it may have to do much more than just providing mid-day meals to children studying in government schools.
“We came up with a two-pronged strategy — one to provide meals to the migrants and those at the bottom of the pyramid and the other to make people aware about vaccination. So far, we have got more than 1 lakh people vaccinated in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru,” he says.
The vaccination programme also helped Akshaya Patra ensure that the infrastructure is ready to take up vaccination for children. ‘’In the past two months, we have learned enough to make sure that as soon as the government gives approvals, we get to vaccinate the 18 lakh children that we have been feeding,” says APF’s CMO Sundeep Talwar.
To ensure its kids don’t sleep hungry as they weren’t able to come to school, Akshaya Patra started sending ‘Happiness kits’— monthly dry groceries and hygiene products along with study material — to them. This was done through a well-oiled OTP collection system that software firm Salesforce helped it devise. The Rs 550-kit was later upgraded to the ‘Family Happiness kit’ that cost the organisation Rs 1,200 per kit and covered a family of four for a month. It also provided ‘Shakti kits’ for pregnant women in Karnataka.
At one point, it was serving close to 60,000 meals a day at Delhi’s night shelters. Meals were also packed and served to healthcare professional at hospitals, traffic police on the roads, cabbies at airports and so on. Additionally, it distributed snacks and water bottles to different groups. For example, when Special Shramik trains facilitated thousands of migrants heading to their hometowns, it provided them with ‘Meal-on-the-Go’ kits in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Gurgaon and Ahmedabad. Similarly, in Dharwad, Karnataka, students of government and private schools were provided food kits and hand sanitisers during their examinations last year.
But conducting such a massive relief drive is far from being easy. “Getting people to distribute the food was a challenge, getting people to work in the kitchens was a challenge, logistics and transportation was a challenge and keeping the workforce motivated (after days of relief work) was a challenge,” says Venkat. But Akshaya Patra didn’t succumb to the challenges. Instead, it leveraged its partnership with the government for the transportation of food in an apt display of public-private partnership.
Pre-COVID, Akshaya Patra had about 6,000 people working with them, a number that shrunk to 1,000-1,200 once the pandemic struck. To keep the work going, APF mobilised a lot of volunteers to help in their drives and beyond. “In the middle of the pandemic, there were floods in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. Akshaya Patra quickly mobilised volunteers and supporters in the region and dished out 20,000 meals a day there,” says Venkat with a sense of pride.
The organisation lauds several corporate and individuals for extending their support for the relief work – both in terms of money and volunteers. “One of the biggest individual contributions came from Narayana Murthy and his family; they donated Rs 10 crore to Akshaya Patra,” Venkat says. He, however, shies away from taking specific names who contributed for their relief work. “We are grateful to all our donors,” he adds.
The crisis was also a big learning for Akshaya Patra. It has left it much better-prepared but has also taken away its three workers in the process. “The not-for-profit, the corporate and the government should come together and form a template to handle crisis like these. It will prevent crucial time from being wasted. As for Akshaya Patra, having a Whatsapp based war room, in which our senior functionaries, bureaucrats, and people who were taking decisions interacted, really helped us in dealing with the situation,” says Venkat.
The organisation looks forward to partner with various organisations and agencies to contribute to food security in a post-COVID world; thus strengthening the belief in goodness arising out of a true tragedy.