Cooking up a storm for India's school lunch scheme

VRINDAVAN, India - Churning out 1.2 tonnes of curry in under an hour, staff running the spotlessly clean, high-tech kitchen are hoping to turn around the shocking reputation of India's free school lunch scheme.

As a large machine rolls out thousands of fluffy, hot rotis (flat breads), aproned men add spices to vegetables and broths cooking in giant steel pots in the three-storey kitchen in the Hindu holy city of Vrindavan.

"We had the vision that no child should be deprived of education because of hunger," said Bharatarshabha Dasa, spokesman for the Akshaya Patra Foundation which manages the kitchen.

Hampered by corruption and inefficiency, the government's midday meal programme is the world's largest, with 120 million children to feed daily.

Students often fall sick after eating contaminated and poorly prepared food, and in 2013 about two dozen children died in an impoverished district of Bihar after they ate a meal laced with pesticide.

"Our endeavour is to change the perception of midday meals in the country in the long run," Dasa told AFP.

Dasa's operations started small in 2000, serving just 1,500 children in the southern state of Karnataka. But it has since grown rapidly, with centralised kitchens in which meals are cooked and sent out to schools.

"Now we are catering to over 1.4 million children in 10,770 schools across 10 states using precision logistics," Dasa said.

Other charities also provide lunches for students, but many schools themselves are responsible for running the scheme, especially in remote, rural areas.

A national government report in 2010 found many such schools lack proper kitchens and adequate storage space, along with qualified cooks.

At the Vrindavan kitchen, food moves seamlessly on chutes and conveyor belts. Rice stored in silos on the terrace flows to an industrial tub for washing before heading into the pots on the bottom floor. Nearby a machine cuts up tonnes of vegetables.

Once in steel containers, the meals are packed into vans which navigate pot-holed roads to reach 2,000 government-run schools in Uttar Pradesh's Mathura region.

The charity receives subsidised produce and government grants for its operations as well as corporate donations, with each meal costing nine rupees (14 cents) to make.

Dead lizards and cockroaches

For many children in India, where malnutrition remains a major problem, free lunches are their only substantial daily meal.

The government scheme, which started nationally in 2001, is aimed at enticing particularly poor and vulnerable children to attend class instead of languishing at home hungry or helping their parents labour.

It has earned applause in some states, but has also become the target of corruption scandals with local media often reporting incidents of dead lizards, cockroaches or worse found in meals.

Yamini Aiyar, director of Accountability Initiative, a research group that tracks government programmes, said the scheme was hampered by too many layers of administration, resulting in poor coordination and delivery.

Aiyar, based in New Delhi, said it was also unfair to burden already-stretched schools with organising the meals.

"It's important to allow schools to do what they are supposed to do." Screwing up her face in disgust, teacher Prem Lata Saini remembers the food that used to be served at her school in Mathura before the foundation stepped in.

"The food used to come from the village head's house. Sometimes it would be just some boiled chickpeas," she said.

"But now the food is healthy and makes use of seasonal vegetables and soya products, something most parents are not able to afford around here." "What happened in Bihar was shocking but not surprising," she added.

57 million malnourished children

UNICEF estimates that 57 million children in India are malnourished, a miserable scenario for a country that counts itself as an economic power. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh described malnutrition during his decade in power as India's "national shame".

At the brick-and-mud Chaumuah school in Mathura, scores of girls in khaki uniforms sit crosslegged on floor mats once the gong sounds for lunch. After saying a prayer, they eagerly wait with their steel plates.

"There is hardly enough food ever in the house for all six of us. I like this food, it's hot and tasty," 12-year-old Anju Singh said, polishing off her meal.

Anju said she spent her days after school taking care of her five younger siblings because her ill mother was mostly bed-ridden and "can't cook or clean".

The menu at the school changes daily and includes roti with vegetable curry and different rice dishes, with dessert served on Saturdays as a treat.

Uday Mani Patel, an Uttar Pradesh government education officer, said more non-profit organisations needed to take part in the scheme, taking over from officials and schools.

"This would change the entire image of the school midday meal in the country," he said.

Dasa said his foundation was training other charities to set up their own large kitchens to provide meals for the scheme.

"(But) More people must come forward."