Is criticism against Akshaya Patra Foundation valid?

The Akshaya Patra Foundation is under fire from sections of the media alleging that the mid-day meals for school children provided by it, which are essentially satvik without garlic or onion, don't match the nutritional standards required for growing up kids.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF), for the uninitiated, is run by the respected ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), and reaches out to 1,762,133 children in 42 locations across 12 states of India, providing them with freshly cooked meals on all school days. Currently, it implements the mid-day meal programme in 15,024 schools of the country.

TO GO WITH India-education-school-health-food,FEATURE by Abhaya SRIVASTAVA In this photo taken on May 19, 2015, an Indian man serves lunch, organised by the non-profit Akshaya Patra Foundation, to schoolgirls at Chaumuha Primary School on the outskirts of Vrindavan. Churning out 1.2 tonnes of curry in under an hour, women stirring vats in the spotlessly clean, high-tech kitchen are hoping to erase the shocking reputation of India's free school lunch scheme. AFP PHOTO / Chandan KHANNA (Photo credit should read Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

The States covered in APF's programme are schools in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh. The number of schools covered in this programme varies from State to State.

The maximum number of schools covered are in Karnataka, where the food cooked at customised centralised kitchen, reaches 2887 schools and feeds roughly 4,49,079 students.

And as it happens, the furore is in Karnataka over what is served and its quality. About the quality, there has been no major protest, but the allegations are about the wateriness of sambar and like.

But it is the nutrients part that has received more flak. Though NIN (National Institute of Nutrients), to which the food samples were sent, had given a clean chit to the food provided by APF, many activists claim that the NIN report was shoddy and 'unscientific'.

At any rate, they claim, refusing to serve onions and garlic, amounts to spreading one's notion of religious superiority and purity on unsuspecting impressionable kids. "Why should the students suffer because of the parochial personal beliefs of a few?" is their claim.

Many people who are privy to the developments, on the other hand, allege that there is a concerted campaign to remove Akshaya Patra from the scene as it is doing a good job and its footprint is growing in many States. Though none would officially state this on record, but most people who spoke to this reporter suggested that "Akshaya Patra has been targeted because it comes from a Hindu background while the NGOs and activists have been set on the issue by powerful vested interests from another religion."

While it is impossible to verify the veracity of this allegation, it seems that Akshaya Patra is being vilified more than necessary on this issue.

Firstly, Akshaya Patra, which has been in operation since 2000, has made it known upfront to State governments that it is in a tie-up with, that it would never use garlic and onion in food prepared in its kitchen. The ISKCON enforces this rule not just in its kitchens for school meals but also in wedding halls that it runs.

But Akshaya Patra does not mind if individual State governments add what they want to. For instance, in Odisha, the government adds egg (from its side) to the food that Akshaya Patra puts on the plate of the students. It also says that the food provided by its wholesome and the menu has been chosen keeping in mind the requirements of school children.

Also, Akshaya Patra, which is run mostly through donations from well-wishers and philanthropists, not only undertakes cooking and delivery, but also has been footing half of the food bill in almost all of the States it is in operation. For instance, the net spending from Akshaya Patra in a State like Karnataka is pegged at around Rs.100 crore.

"If an organisation that goes out of the way to help feed the impoverished students, it should be celebrated rather than finding fault with its core belief, which in any case is not problematic," says a Bengaluru-based industrialist whose company makes considerable contributions to the APF.

He adds that there is more than what meets the eye in the whole controversy. "This is a concerted campaign against Akshya Patra because of its success. Some NGOs are unable to digest this story of its achievements. One look at the people spearheading the campaign against APF, you will understand the contours of the conspiracy. They are using their megaphones in the media to drum up protest against APF."

Meanwhile, the Karnataka government, which is under pressure to cut the contract from APF, has not spoken in this matter as yet. A source in the government said that they are waiting for a report from Central Food Technical Research Institute (CFTRI) for more inputs on the matter.