Let No Child Go To School Hungry, Ever!

Dr Hiramalini Seshadri

Photo source: Author

September is National Nutrition Month; just the right time to take a look at a young people’s nutrition initiative for school children- The Sri Sathya Sai Annapoorna Trust, a charitable trust founded in 2015, by idealistic youth in Sathya Sai Grama, Muddenahalli, in rural Karnataka. This initiative could not have been more timely; for in India which is home to almost a fifth of the world’s children, among school kids aged 6 to 13, roughly a quarter are undernourished and over half are at risk of developing malnutrition; all this despite the mid-day meal program rolled out for government schools for 25 years now.

Annapoorna steps in to work at the grassroots to combat this scourge and also seeks to address the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiency that affects the cognitive development of children and therefore their scholastic performance. Inspired by Sri Sathya Sai Baba, it all started in 2012, when Anand Kadali, a young IT professional, met fellow devotee, Madhusudan Naidu, a double Gold Medallist from Baba’s University, who had quit his job as a banker and turned to full-time social service after mystic experiences with Baba from the beyond. Madhusudan communicated that Baba wished that they start a ‘breakfast seva’ to feed his children who ‘were going to school hungry’. Anand started in simple faith. It meant getting up at 4 am six days a week and driving up and down 20 kilometres on his two-wheeler, with a cook in tow, to a rural school near Bangalore and rustling up a fresh tasty breakfast for the fifty-odd kids at a tumbledown government school that Baba had identified for them.

Inspired by Anand’s example, more young IT professionals joined in; so did teachers, parents, vegetable vendors, grocery shop owners, doctors and others. To cut a long story short, in a decade, the number of children benefitting rose from fifty to five lakh plus and counting; and from a nameless, simple do-good effort by a bunch of IT pro-s whom fellow employees dubbed as ‘crazy’ to be driving the miles at crack of dawn, it grew into the Annapoorna Trust with over 600 volunteers, 800 vendors and thousands of teachers across 6000 centres spread over 22 states and 3 union territories. Annapoorna operates on a decentralised model, with a customised menu to suit the regional palate, and a standardised menu within a region to ensure quality. But over a decade, Annapoorna has ended up doing more than feeding school children; in fact, it is doing more and more for the generation next growing up in the hinterlands of India.

As Sai Prasad, an ex-IT pro, now a full-timer with Annapoorna explains, “When you cook and feed a child day after day, somehow the child becomes your own.; and when the child NEEDS something, you are unable to look away; no matter how difficult the situation, you try to find a solution. It is like vicarious parenting!”. The bonding became so strong that Annapoorna volunteers did so much more for the kids. Besides serving breakfast, they set up Reverse Osmosis-based drinking water plants, constructed toilets at the schools, conducted health screening of children, arranged for treatment of sick kids and so on. Some volunteers took to teaching soft skills, music and art to the students. When they found that children often could not continue high school education, they turned to the each-one-educate-one Trust of Sai alumni set up under the leadership of Madhusudan Naidu so that the children could continue education at the free-of-cost residential schools. The goodness effort simply exploded exponentially in every direction! Annapoorna now has a lofty target of being a change agent for rural India not just in the area of child nutrition but in creating sustainable rural development through the provisions of Vidya (Educare), Vaidya (Healthcare), Vaari (Water) and Vidyuth (Clean Energy).

With more 'nutritionists' joining the bandwagon, Annapoorna got educated about the need to address the micronutrient deficiencies in diet; called ‘hidden hunger’ in layman’s terms. With the help of CFTRI in Mysore a micronutrient-rich supplement, aptly called ‘SAISURE’, was formulated and third-party manufacture to FDA standards was arranged for. At new schools where ‘breakfast seva’ was begun, it was often started as a glass of milk with SAISURE mixed and a banana, until proper breakfast-making facilities were created. In many states, like the state of Karnataka, Annapoorna nutrition seamlessly complements the government’s mid-day meal and milk–for-children programs. For example, in Karnataka, the state’s Ksheera Bhagya (milk) program for school children, is a great hit now as the addition of SAISURE to the milk makes it both delicious and super nutritious.

Running a nationwide organisation comes with its own challenges, but Annapoorna uses the best management principles and has become a benchmark for Good Practices for NGOs. Compliance with all governmental rules is paramount. Total transparency is the name of the game; with verifiable lists of beneficiaries and donors, proof of benefits provided and events conducted, books of accounts and so on readily available for scrutiny, says Ashish Bharadwaj, who left a lucrative corporate career to work full time for Annapoorna. There is an internal audit four times a year. Administrative costs are pegged at the minimum, to ensure that maximum benefits reach the children. This becomes possible as both the few employees and many volunteers are an inspired lot; who seem to have found through Annapoorna, their calling in life.

What makes Annapoorna tick? Founder Trustee Sadguru Sri Madhusudan Sai, as he is known now, has created a practical blueprint- the Sarkar-Samaj-Sanstha model; where the organisation works hand in hand with government and civil society at large; and it has been a runaway success. Governments are happy; people love the feel-good of helping feed hungry school kids; and Annapoorna is a preferred destination for corporate social responsibility initiatives. Awards and accolades have poured in too; from governments, fellow organisations and even the United Nations.
As National Nutrition month comes to a close, Annapoorna continues to embrace child after child with love; as she walks the talk-

“Let no child go to school hungry, ever!”

(Contact: dr.hiramalini.seshadri@gmail.com | www.annapoorna.org.in)

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