The ISKCON Food Relief Foundation feeds 12 lac school children every day. That’s quite a feat. But this is not one that has been achieved overnight – it’s taken a decade of persistence and hard work to reach here. Spend a couple of hours, just as I did, with Swami Radhakrishana Das and you’ll be amazed at all the efforts that go on behind the scene. From permissions to start operations a decade ago to the recent restrictions they are facing in terms of expanding – there have been several obstacles along the way, which the organisation has managed to overcome.
It all started back in 1994. As per a Supreme Court diktat, government schools were to start providing lunch to students. With no thought being given to implementation, an easy solution was found – distributing packets of grains to the children, which their mothers can then cook for them at home. When children began coming to school only on the day of grain-distribution, the futility of the entire exercise was realised. For all one knows, the grains were then sold in the market by parents to buy alcohol! Moreover, it wasn’t helping increase attendance either.
To correct this flaw, teachers were asked to start cooking lunch for the kids. But as this kept them out of the classroom and in the kitchen instead, it turned out to be a counter-productive exercise too. Then came attempts to have self-help womens’ groups provide the meals; which also fizzled out because of the political angle of giving contracts for the same. Political parties obviously pushed contract towards their own people. Moreover, with 244 women self-help groups employed, it became difficult to manage. At one point, the Government even said that the food supply contract should go only to underprivileged widows. A classic case of too many aspirations, and too little planning.
The turning point was when the (thatched) roof of a school burned down because of a fire in the kitchen (whilst preparing lunch for kids). 120 children died in that incident. That’s when ISKCON decided that to enter this domain. They essentially decided that they would extend their already-functional “Food 4 Life” programme for school children.
“Food 4 Life” began in 19X as per Shri Bhaktivedata’s diktat. After he saw the children fighting with the dogs for food, he said that no body should go hungry. So, through its 600 temples across the country, the organisation had started to serve meals. However, it was not run in an organized manner. On some days of the week, some temples used to prepare food. A set amount of food was prepared irrespective of the number of people attending that day too. So venturing into the midday meal space allowed ISKCON to please the founder as well as work towards a good cause. It is for this reason that they call themselves a faith-based organisation.
The pilot took off when Swami Radhakrishna Das met the then Education Minister. When news spread that the contract had been given to ISKCON, there were major protests from political parties. ISKCON had been granted the contract for their proven success of serving hygienic food prepared at clean kitchen through the Food 4 Life programme. But outsiders believed there was an angle of favoritism. So, it all started with 5 schools feeding 900 children a day.
But that was only the first of many hurdles to come. Like for example, uptil 19X, ISKCON took the entire 100 grams of rice per child from the government. But when 100 grams of rice is cooked into khichdi ( i.e. with vegetables, ghee, dal etc. it becomes approximately 700 grams of khichdi). Forget children, that’s too much for adults to eat as one meal. But the organisation was unable to convince the government to send less than 100 grams of rice per child. They had even proposed that they will distribute the remaining grains amongst the children on a regular basis, but that would make them liable to “contempt to court” too (as they would not be serving “cooked food”). So they used what they needed and simply stored the rest. One day, on seeing the stored grains, a Government official accused them of hoarding – of selling grains for personal profit! Depriving the children of their meals!
But Swami Radhakrishna Das and his team have and continue to remain dedicated. The kitchens infact have been designed by Swami Radhakrishna Das himself. On passing the “flight kitchens” building on his way to the Mumbai airport, he had wondered many a times how airlines were able to provide so many passengers with quality food at the right time. That got him thinking. Why couldn’t the same kitchen/processes be used to cook food for underprivileged children too? Clearly this was possible. As ISKCON kitchens are ISO certified, just as flight kitchens are.
From regular fumigation of the kitchens to staff welfare measures ( like health tests every 3 weeks for the kitchen staff to providing them with housing near the kitchens), all steps are taken to ensure that the food that comes out of the kitchen is nothing but five-star worthy. Having sampled the khichdi myself, during my meeting with Swami Radhakrishna Das, I can vouch for that!