Our Beneficiaries are at The Center of All Our Efforts: CEO, Akshaya Patra Foundation

It is a proud moment for an organization when its name becomes synonymous with a particular initiative that is focused on creating a positive impact in society. The same has been the case with The Akshaya Patra Foundation. From serving just 1,500 children in 5 schools in 2000 to millions of children through its over 52 kitchens across across 12 States & 2 Union Territories of India, the Foundation strives to eliminate classroom hunger by implementing the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in government schools and government-aided schools.

Mr. Shridhar Venkat, CEO – The Akshaya Foundation

The Akshaya Patra Foundation recently launched the Happiness Kit initiative that has resulted in over 9 million meal servings so far. Mr. Shridhar Venkat, CEO – The Akshaya Foundation talks to MediaCatalyst about the Happiness Kit initiative, the challenges the Foundation faced during the ongoing pandemic, national lockdown to the implementation of AI-enabled monitoring systems to automate hygiene and safety measures in its centralised kitchens.

Here are the excerpts from the interaction.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation started the Happiness Kit initiative during the current pandemic. What is this initiative all about?

Happiness Kits is an initiative by Akshaya Patra that provides nutrition support to its school feeding programme beneficiaries. These kits focus on nutrition, immunity, hygiene, and education with their contents ranging from packets of glucose biscuits and ragi flour to dental kit, and stationery with activity books.

Over 4.73 lakh Happiness Kits, amounting to over 9 million meal servings, have been distributed so far in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and Dadra & Nagar Haveli.

The mid-day meal program has closely been functioning with schools. However, the schools have been closed so far during this academic year. How has the foundation ensured the child beneficiaries are catered to, during the ongoing pandemic?

As the implementing partner of the Government’s flagship Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme, Akshaya Patra is committed to the responsibility of providing wholesome meals to children. With schools closed as a result of the pandemic, we are proactively working with the Government and donors to provide nutrition support to MDM beneficiaries by providing them Happiness Kits. We will always keep our beneficiaries central to all our efforts and strive to facilitate their development.

A lot of people came forward with donations to help you carry out this initiative including the Government. Tell us more about it and the extent of the impact.

We have been able to carry out our COVID-19 food assistance initiative because of the tremendous support shown by the Government, our corporate partners, and individual donors. Not only with this initiative, but all through our journey, growing from serving 1500 children two decades ago to serving 1.8 million children as of 2020, it is this generous support from the Government and donors that has helped us to ensure sustained access to food and nutrition for all our beneficiaries through our various endeavours.

By combining the available physical infrastructure and support from the Government, our donors, and partner networks, we have been able to serve over 109 million meals in multiple locations across 18 states and two union territories.

What challenges did you face while feeding or cooking during the lockdown? What measures did you take to maintain social distancing & Sanitization and fulfill other norms of the lockdown while serving the need?

We understood the urgency as well as the importance of the COVID-19 food relief initiative and strived to maintain the highest standards of safety and hygiene in all our relief packaging and distribution processes. It was difficult to procure raw materials and non-food essentials for the relief feeding efforts at the start of the initiative owing to lockdown rules. Our long-standing association with suppliers helped to make available the required raw materials and other essentials. Local administrations also played a significant role in enabling us to tackle this challenge. With severe restrictions on movement, navigating the initial days of the relief effort proved to be difficult. However, our relationship with the Government allowed us to quickly obtain the necessary permits from concerned authorities for the movement of delivery vehicles, etc., and serve people in need in various locations.

Our dedicated staff and selfless volunteers were going out on the field, in public spaces, risking their lives to distribute food among the underserved communities. To minimise the risks they were exposed to, we provided them with masks, gloves, and sanitisers, and instructed them to take all necessary precautions. Several other safety measures were in place to ensure that their risk of exposure to the coronavirus is reduced while working for the relief operation.

We also took additional measures to ensure the safety of everyone involved, as well as our beneficiaries. All the employees and volunteers were screened with a handheld infrared thermometer at the entrance of the kitchen and packaging centre premises. Social distancing norms were strictly followed. Everyone was asked to use proper respiratory masks during the commute. Inside the premises, everyone was directed to wear hairnets, face masks, and gloves at all times, and sanitise their hands with hand sanitiser during entry and every one hour. Everyone was strictly instructed to report any illness to the immediate supervisor and immediately seek medical attention. Kitchens and delivery vehicles were sanitised with disinfectants at the end of the day. Orientation sessions were conducted on personal hygiene, hand sanitisation, and social distancing for everyone involved.

Tech start-ups Syook and Wobot collaborated for a health and safety monitoring system for The Akshaya Patra Foundation. What is this collaboration about? How will it impact the initiatives run by the foundation?

Akshaya Patra recently collaborated with Accenture Labs and Microsoft Research India to develop AI-enabled monitoring systems to automate hygiene and safety measures in its centralised kitchens. This collaboration brought about an innovative solution to strengthen our safety practices in the preparation of meals. Powered by the AI and IoT capabilities of Microsoft Azure, Wobot, and Syook, the solution helped ensure compliance with social distancing and contact tracing.

The pilot project has been implemented in our kitchen in Jigani, Karnataka, to serve 40,000 people every day. The use of the AI and IoT powered monitoring system enabled us to automatically achieve more than 98% accuracy in detecting the SOP violations, 80% cost reduction in human monitoring staff, and 85% reduction in epidemiological risk among the kitchen staff.

This pilot project’s success has encouraged us to look into the feasibility of adopting this technological solution at our other centralised kitchens across the country in the future.

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