Indian Express visits Akshaya Patra kitchen

Sharp at 2 am, the clanging of large utensils marks the beginning of another day of work at the Akshaya Patra Foundation's kitchen in Jagatpura, at the far end of Jaipur. Over the next five hours, the kitchen will prepare tonnes of dal and rice and lakhs of rotis to feed 1.25 lakh school children in and around Jaipur as their midday meal.

The first hour is spent washing and cleaning the utensils using steam jets. The cooks walk in soon after, post a rigorous sanitisation process. "Food handlers or visitors to the kitchen cannot walk in without shoe covers, masks and head covers. We do not even allow anyone to wear jewellery or loose metallic objects that could fall into the food by mistake," says Amit Keshwa, Operations Manager, handing out the gear to this correspondent.

The Foundation has kitchens preparing midday meals in 20 locations across the country, four of them in Rajasthan -including Jaipur, Nathdwara, Jodhpur and Baran. Since its conception, Akshay Patra has earned a name for itself for its quality and for being among the largest suppliers of midday meals to government schools in the country.

The sprawling kitchen in the foundation’s Jaipur centre is divided into two sections-wet and dry. The dry section churns out 3 lakh rotis in a matter of two hours with two heavy machines swiftly kneading and rolling the dough, cutting it into perfect circles and slipping these into a hot chamber at 300 degrees Celsius for phulkas, which are then touched with a smattering of ghee to keep them soft for the next few hours. The rotis drop into large containers lined with paper to absorb the hot vapours and are weighed to ensure they meet the needs of the school these are marked for.

A whiff of freshly made dal and vegetable pulao emanates from the wet kitchen where cooks laboriously stir large pails. Buckets of dal are poured into channels that empty into a large tub for a final stir, before being packed into delivery containers.

The kitchen in Jaipur has a small bakery too making wheat cakes and cookies once a week, a delicacy the schoolchildren wait for. The main menu too is tweaked every day to give variety, with items such as tomato rice, peas pulao, sweet rice, kheer, kadhi with soya nuggets and sambar.

"All cooking is done on preset temperatures, which ensure the food is neither undercooked nor overcooked, or left in a lump. This has been particularly helpful in boiling rice or making pulao, where we cook at above 95 degrees for exactly 20 minutes and then pack it into containers. The same goes for rotis that are marked for roasting at a preset temperature of 300 to 400 degrees. However workers continually sort the burnt ones out and we also send a few extra to every school to make up for the soggy few. A note is made of every single procedure on a daily basis," says Balbir Singh Rathore, Production Officer. "The responsibility of the quality of the food rests with us till we deliver it to the schools, but thereafter, the distribution system is taken care of by the school authorities," he adds.

A separate food safety and quality team tastes every item and separate samples are kept aside. Those apart, quality checks for the raw material are done for every batch of provisions purchased. "Large purchases have to be made to cater to a daily consumption of 5,000 kg of vegetables, 1,000 kg of fruits, 7,000 kg of wheat, 4,500 kg of rice, 3,000 kg of dal and 800 kg of cooking oil. Quality checks become necessary. We procure from three vendors. While their products are tested before the tenders are awarded, every new batch of provisions undergoes in-house laboratory tests as well as periodic checks by a separate food control body. Fruits and vegetables are cleaned through a process of chlorination," Keshwa says.

Cleaners, food handlers and supervisors-a strength of 450-include professionals and devotees working with The Akshay Patra Foundation. The food is delivered beginning with schools located the farthest from the city, almost 100 km away. A separate batch is sent out to 25,000 children of Anganwadi workers to help fight malnutrition under a state government scheme, while another 4,000 daily wage labourers are served in the evening at a nominal price of Rs 5 per person.

Officials admit that the high standards of safety and quality come at a cost and arranging funds has always been tough. R Govinda Dasa, president, Tht Akshaya Patra Foundation, says, "The government provides 100 gm of raw material (wheat and rice) per primary student and 150 gm for upper primary students. In addition, Rs 3.67 is given as cooking charge for primary students and Rs 5 for the older students. The amount covers only 50 per cent of the cost per student and the Foundation has to depend on donations from corporate houses and individual donors for funds."

Source: The Indian Express

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