Bhawani Singh Shekhawat is the CEO of Akshaya Patra – an extraordinarily brilliant charity that we first linked up with during Ramadan in 2015. At Diwali the same year, we made the partnership permanent. After three years, we’re still immeasurably proud to help them feed millions of children each year and stop hunger being a barrier to education in India. Bhawani is a dear friend, and – along with ourpartnership with Magic Breakfast here in the UK – joining forces with him and Akshaya Patra is one of the best things we’ve ever done.
Whirling around the school playground with a huge smile on her face, 13-year-old Kirti mesmerises everyone with her graceful dance steps. Her friends encourage her by clapping as loudly as they can to the rhythm of the songs.
This bright, energetic girl dreams of becoming a professional contemporary dancer, and is so passionate about fulfilling her ambition that she walks 10 miles to reach her after-school dance lessons. Kirti studies at a school in Bangalore and receives a free freshly cooked, nourishing lunch every day through our Food For Education Programme. She is just one of 1.6 million children across 11 states in India whom we currently provide with lunch and therefore enable them to attend and stay in school.
Just as Dishoom’s ethos is to bring people from all walks of life together over a delicious meal and break down barriers in doing so, here at The Akshaya Patra Foundation we also believe in the power of food to break down barriers. In our case this is to work towards eradicating childhood hunger as a barrier to education. ‘Akshaya Patra’ translates as ‘unlimited vessel of food’. We want to give every child the energy and security they need to realise their full potential and become the very best version of themselves.
We are the largest non-profit school meal provider in the world, and have won multiple awards. The food we serve is hygienically cooked in our state-of-the-art kitchens and efficiently transported to over 13,000 government schools every day. We rigorously test our food to ensure it is meeting, and in fact exceeding, the nutritional content required – the majority of our dishes are loaded with fresh, seasonal vegetables. Our menus are regionally tailored, and we serve a different meal each day to keep the children guessing what they will be having for lunch, which further encourages them to continue to attend school. For many of our beneficiaries, their school lunch is often the only full, balanced meal they will receive all day as their parents cannot afford to provide them with the food they need to grow healthily.
Why do we focus on India? Because one in three of the world’s malnourished children, and over 30% of the world’s illiterate population, lives in India. A staggering 3,000 children die across the country every day due to hunger, and over 15 million children do not currently have access to a school lunch, with many of them dropping out of education and turning to child labour in exchange for food. These deeply shocking statistics highlight the urgent need for our work, and motivate us to strive towards achieving our mission of reaching 5 million children by 2020.
We know that with full stomachs and enquiring minds, the pupils we serve are shaking up these odds and building a brighter future through accessing the transformative power of education. 78% of parents we surveyed perceived that their child’s health had improved. There are also noticeable improvements in the cognitive development of the children we reach, with 85% of their teachers reporting that the proportion of students achieving higher grades has increased. We have been operating since 2000, and have seen many inspirational cases of young people going on to fulfil their ambitions thanks to accessing childhood education. For example, our previous beneficiary Saraswati is now an MSc in Biotechnology and she is currently pursuing a PhD.
For girls like Saraswati and Kirti, the opportunity to attend school is not always certain – girls living in developing countries are often the first to be withdrawn from education when their family is experiencing financial difficulties. However, educating girls has an undeniably powerful ripple effect, which we are determined to encourage. Evidence published by the World Bank shows that educated women “tend to be healthier, earn more income, have fewer children, and provide better healthcare and education to their children.” When gainfully employed thanks to the lifelong gift of education, a young person can also lift two to three family members out of the poverty cycle.
Feeding 1.6 million children every day and scaling up to reach millions more children who need Food For Education is certainly not something we can achieve alone. We are therefore hugely grateful to everyone at Dishoom for supporting us so generously and wholeheartedly. Every lunch and dinner eaten at each of their restaurants means that one child in India receives a hot, nutritious and life-changing school lunch in return. To date, Dishoom has donated over 4 million school lunches.
Dishoom’s invaluable support has played, and will continue to play, a significant part in making our ambitious goals a reality, and I am excited to see where this partnership will take us together. For now, I will bring my focus back from large numbers to the fundamental difference that we can make to one child’s life if we concentrate on dedicating ourselves to serving them. All of the pupils at our partner schools sit down and eat the meals we provide together, which encourages unity and equity amongst the children.
Every day, when Kirti tucks into her tasty lunch with her friends, the food we provide gives her the energy to learn and to play and, above all, to dance. Keep dancing Kirti, we are behind you every step of the way.
Bhawani Singh Shekhawat, CEO, The Akshaya Patra Foundation UK
For more information, or to donate, visit www.foodforeducation.org.uk
IT HAS BEEN an annual December habit of mine, these past ten years since we embarked upon this restaurant business, to sit alone, with myself, and reflect on the year gone by. I am grateful to be here in the Permit Room in our restaurant in Shoreditch scribbling and writing, the oddly enjoyable taste of splintering wood from my chewed up pencil smoothed by my decently strong drink.
These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it?
I love to truly understand and appreciate the origins of a dish, and learn how communities have adapted a recipe over time to make that dish unique to them.
We have arrived at a very sad, but inevitable and clear choice. As of now, all Dishooms are now closed to diners.