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Akshaya Patra CEO Shridhar Venkat on running the world’s largest NGO school meal programme

The Akshaya Patra Foundation celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2020. It continues to be the world’s largest NGO school meal programme, serving hot, nutritious mid-day meals to 1.8 million school children in India every day. Not only does it reach out to kids, but to people in need at large. During the COVID-19 crisis, this NGO’s relief programme saw the highest number of CSR partnerships in India for serving grocery kits and cooked food to various communities that were hit hard by the pandemic.
In an exclusive conversation with The CSR Journal, the Foundation’s CEO Shridhar Venkat reveals how this not-for-profit organisation has been working towards eliminating “classroom hunger” so that no child is deprived of education. Venkat has over 25 years of work experience and has been associated with leading multinationals like Philips, ABB and Webex Communications (now CISCO). He is an Eisenhower Fellow for Innovation and a recipient of Mother Teresa Social Leadership Scholarship.

Watch the full interview here:

Text version of the interview:

1. Congratulations on 20 years of The Akshaya Patra Foundation. How has the Foundation managed to stay relevant for two decades?

In Akshaya Patra, the vision has been lofty. The vision is that no child in India will be deprived of education because of hunger. There are some fundamental principles we follow which has kept the foundation relevant after all these years; innovation is one of them. Whether it’s people innovation, process innovation or technology innovation, Akshaya Patra has always taken steps to ensure that children will get a hot, nutritious meal, day after day.

2. World Food Day was celebrated after the Indian government’s Poshan Maah. The World Food Programme won the Nobel Peace Prize. In the midst of these positive changes, how close is India to Zero Hunger which also happens to be SDG 2?

Compliments to the World Food Programme for their phenomenal work in addressing Zero Hunger across the world. Our country is taking the right steps in terms of ensuring that children and all needy persons get food which is required for sustenance. I am happy with the steps that the government of India and the various state governments are taking in addressing hunger. I am confident that if all of us apply our mind together and the youth is empowered to make the right decisions, we as a country will be able to beat hunger soon.

3. Akshaya Patra is the world’s largest NGO school meal programme. How is your foundation working towards this goal of Zero Hunger?

We stay focused on addressing classroom hunger. We believe that feeding a child is not charity; it’s a social responsibility. Akshaya Patra is doing its bit in reaching Zero Hunger. We are signatories to the United Nations Zero Hunger Challenge. As a not-for-profit, Akshaya Patra tries to make sure that malnutrition is addressed, that children come to school every day. There is a positive trend where we break the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. Poverty and hunger are closely related so if a child gets a good meal and grows up healthy, gets educated well, then it can transform the lives of hundreds of children. So, we believe that our work will have a cascading effect on the nation’s progress towards Zero Hunger.

4. In the recent past, your initiatives have been going beyond Mid Day meals, for the overall development of children. Could you throw light on these initiatives?

We keep doing many other experiments. One of them is Beyond the Meal programme. We have introduced scholarships for needy children. We have introduced music lessons in partnership with prominent music schools such as Shankar Mahadevan Academy, The Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts by legendary violinist L Subramaniam. We also encourage these children to take up football and cricket.
In fact, we did a tie-up with Just Robotics where children from government schools in Bengaluru can sign up for classes. These kids met me recently. They had won the Jury Award at the National Robotics Championship held in Ahmedabad, beating some of the best private schools in the country.
We have created a few model schools where we have spruced up the infrastructure and provided smartphones, created a kitchen garden. We are also trying to see how children can be more engaged in extracurricular activities. The model school initiative is basically a holistic ecosystem with the meal as the core.

5. Your foundation has the highest number of corporate partnerships among NGOs in India. Which companies are you working closely with during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It will be unfair to our donors if I name some of them and leave others out. So, I would like to thank all the corporate and individual donors who have exhibited an excellent and proactive attitude towards solving the COVID-19 issue. That is how we were able to serve 110 million meals since COVID-19 struck.

6. What is the secret of your success in taking the Mid Day meal scheme to more children where other nonprofit organisations have failed?

I have great respect for the non-profit ecosystem in our country. Some of them have scaled up, others have not. As for Akshaya Patra, there are certain parameters which have made it what it is today. For one, we have a confluence of a missionary spirit and professionalism. When an organisation is starting out, there is missionary zeal and as it gets bigger, it gets overshadowed by the other. However, to keep these two intact as you grow and scale-up is something the Foundation has done well.
The second factor is that the Foundation has stayed focused on one objective – ensuring hot, safe, nutritious meals to children. All 7,000 of my team members in 52 locations across the country wake up in the morning with the same objective, day after day. That is how we were able to cross the ‘3 billion cumulative meals served’ mark in early 2019 when the Hon’ble Prime Minister paid a visit to commemorate the occasion. So, focus has been one of the main pillars of our growth story.
The third factor is simplicity. Though we are a large nonprofit organisation handling 400 tonnes of food every day, we have kept our processing system simple. We believe simplicity is the key to scaling up.
There are some things which Stanford Social Innovation Review wrote about organisations like ours – the ‘denominator mindset’ looking at the overall universe we serve. The ‘innovative hiring mindset’ –many of my colleagues have come from the for-profit sector. They have left lucrative jobs for this role. The ‘radical frugality mindset’ where we optimise our expenses. For example, we have roti making machines which can make 40,000 rotis per hour so we can serve hot and fluffy rotis to the children. The last and the most important is the collaborative mindset. We promote public-private collaboration with the government instead of disrupting the operations.

7. Akshaya Patra often associates with eminent political figures. Prime Minister Narendra Modi served Akshaya Patra’s 3 billionth meal, Yogi Adityanath was in the School Chalo Abhiyan in Lucknow. How does the Foundation navigate these associations and still stay neutral?

We are focused on service. Irrespective of the government, whether in the Centre or the State, we have adopted the collaborative mindset. Irrespective of the party or the bureaucrat or the State we work in, they all acknowledge that we need to end classroom hunger. So, we have been getting phenomenal support at the Central, state and local level. The Foundation has maintained an apolitical stance, which has led us to work successfully with the governing bodies for 20 years.

8. In the media today, negativity gets more mileage than positivity. Organisations like yours which are doing so much good work don’t get the publicity they deserve. Do you agree?

I feel the media has done its bit in making Akshaya Patra known. I am thankful to the media for spreading positive news about us. For an organisation of our size and our service orientation, we don’t spend much money on advertising and communications. For every Rs. 100 from a donor, only Rs. 8 is our overhead cost; while Rs. 92 goes to the programme. To ensure that our costs are kept to a minimum so that we can give more to the children is one of our principles. Here, the media has helped us in spreading the word, whether in coverage of our kitchens, our beneficiaries, or our events. In fact, the media has been kind to us.