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A meal from Lord Krishna

Iskcon provides mid-day meal to 27,000 children every day. Thanks to good nourishment, they have begun to do well at school.


VISUALISE THIS: A group of village children scrabbling with street dogs over morsels of food strewn on the road along with used banana leaves. This was what shocked and saddened Shrila Prabhupada, who turned to his disciple and said: "Imagine how hungry they are. Krishna is the supreme father, and wherever the father is, children should not go hungry." The Prabhupada issued a dictum: "No one within ten miles radius of an Iskcon temple should go hungry," and wrote to one of the temple presidents: "Our temple should be the via-media for feeding the poor with food and spiritual knowledge."

What transpired as a small wish in the mind of Shrila Prabhupada, the founder of Iskcon, (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) on one afternoon in 1974, is now the country's one-of-a-kind programme that addresses two problems - education and hunger.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, set up in 2000 by the Akshaya Patra Foundation, a non-profit organisation, has since its inception been providing free meals that consists of rice and sambhar with vegetables and curds to school children from the rural belts of Bangalore. The free meal programme was launched by Union Education Minister Murli Manohar Joshi in November 2000. Isckon Bangalore spends about $100,000 a month to maintain the programme operated on a daily basis. The money spent on food per child woks out to Rs. 6.

The Akshaya Patra kitchen, at the centre of this programme, is perhaps the biggest in Bangalore. Equipped with modern facilities, the kitchen was designed by Isckon Chairman Madhu Pandit Das, an M.Tech in Structural Engineering. There are ten gigantic, mechanised boilers that make 240 kg of cooked rice and five boilers that make around 6,250 litres of sambhar. There is also steam heating that facilitates the cooking process.

Work at the kitchen starts everyday at about 4 a.m.. Rice is cooked in the double jacket, stainless steel boilers, and is emptied into moving trolleys with vibrating troughs. The troughs then fill custom-built containers. The sambhar is emptied into stainless steel containers through ducts which are interconnected to all the boilers. All the food is then loaded into the buses systematically via a conveyor belt. This is around 10 a.m.. Six Ashok Leyland buses and a few tempos carry food to the schools, each for about 4000 students (about 10 to 15 schools per vehicle). A security personnel escorts each vehicle to ensure safe delivery of meals to the schools. The vehicles drop off the meals at the schools, and on their return trip, pick up the empty containers.

The kitchen churns out food for 27,000 children everyday. Asheesha Govinda Das, the media co-ordinator at Iskcon observes: "Hunger is not exclusive to any particular segment of society. It is common for all. We send food to Urdu schools around DJ Halli too."

The teachers in the schools help serve food to the children who bring their own plates and glasses. The children, who otherwise would go without food for days, and even collapse during school hours sometimes, are now better off. They seem to concentrate that much more on studies. "It was really tough for the children to get used to such a thing as good quality, thick yoghurt. They had never seen or heard of something like that. To them, curds was always watery!" says Asheesha. A teacher observes: "They eat this meal today, and their next one is only tomorrow. They wait eagerly for the Iskcon bus everyday."

Shrila Prabhupada is said to have narrated a story to his disciples: "If a bird comes across a sack of rice, it might pick a few grains and fly away; whereas, man is greedy, and so, he grabs the whole sack." Observes Asheesha: "People may easily forget a very basic fact of nature — it's not man, but God who makes food. But it's man who created hunger and he must solve it."

Asheesha says that the Akshaya Patra program has acted as a catalyst of sorts. Many schools under this program have now acquired scholarship sponsors as well as donations towards improvement of infrastructure. "It costs Rs. 1,200 a year to feed one hungry child. Several corporates and individuals have come forward to join us in our mission to make children hunger free," says Asheesha. The Akshaya Patra program, true to its name, is striving to provide "unlimited food for life". In course of time, the programme aims to reach 250,000 children everyday and initiatives have already been launched to reach this target.

For those of us who would like to help the programme, we could contact Iskcon on 3321956/3322346.

RANJINI RAO

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