Feature story

Food is the fuel

More than 28,000 school-going children from Maharashtra’s tribal belt are getting their fill of nutrition, thanks to the ‘Annapurna Central Kitchens’ programme

Iwant to be a policeman,” says Vikas Shid with all the confidence his 15-year-old self can muster. The son of a rice-farming couple in Nashik’s Shenwad village, part of Maharashtra's tribal belt, Vikas is a first-generation learner who has recently cleared his Standard X exams. Chances are he will clear whatever other tests the future may hold to fulfil his ambition, and there’s a not-so-obvious reason for that.

Unlike millions of children near about his age and from his milieu, Vikas is healthy and strong. This has much to do with him being shielded through his childhood years from malnutrition and anaemia, common afflictions in the region he calls home. The credit for that goes to the regular and nutritious meals served at his school under the ‘Annapurna Central Kitchens’ programme.

The programme was started in September 2015 by the Tata Trusts and the Maharashtra government’s Tribal Development Department (TDD). Under it, two large kitchens were set up at Mundhegaon in Nashik district and Kambalgaon in Palghar.

The Trusts manage these kitchens, which cook and deliver four meals a day to more than 28,000 students in 67 government-run residential schools in Nashik and Palghar. A first-of-its-kind nutrition delivery model that works across a large canvas, the initiative has improved the health and prospects of numerous children in rural, and mainly tribal, Maharashtra.

Spanning a combined area of nearly 20,000sqft and run by an army of 360 people working in shifts, the kitchens have on their menu rice, chapatis, lentils, vegetable curries and snacks. These wholesome meals are delivered, piping hot, by 48 trucks to schools as far as 90km away from the centres.

Adequate nutrition is at the heart of the project. “Children in Maharashtra’s tribal regions are plagued by problems such as anaemia, malnutrition, stunting and wasting,” says programme manager Rajat Shastri. “There was immense scope to improve the nutrition delivery model in these government schools. What we have ensured is that the food served is high quality, wholesome and nutritious.”

Ensuring the three Hs

The kitchens are jointly funded by the government and the Tata Trusts. However, as the techno-managerial partners, the Trusts are responsible for facility design, equipment and the running of the centres. The initiative’s three goals are simple: provide high-quality meals to students; ensure the highest levels of food safety and hygiene; and achieve financial viability through optimal use of TDD funds.

Five years on, the central kitchen programme has excelled on all these parameters. Alongside improvements in health outcomes and an increase in number of children partaking of the meals, the project has got its economics right.

The kitchens come under the Trusts’ wider, pan-India nutrition endeavour. That government bodies and agencies need help on this front is not in doubt. According to the 2016 National Family Health Survey, 54% of children under five years of age in Maharashtra were anaemic, 34% showed signs of stunting and 26% were underweight for their age. The numbers are higher than the national average on nutrition and worse among the state’s tribal communities.

Malnutrition impacts development and has lifelong implications. A 2007 study by Lancet found that adults who were undernourished as children earn 20% less than those who were not. Malnutrition also hurts the economy, with one survey estimating that it eats away nearly 4% of India’s GDP every year.

Despite being one of the country’s wealthiest states, Maharashtra continues to grapple with both malnutrition and education challenges. The state’s tribal regions suffer the most on these counts, and that despite an increase in school enrolments and a reduction in dropout rates among tribal students. The Annapurna effort is aimed at helping improve the situation.

“Before the kitchens started, the bulk of complaints from students and parents used to be about food quality and hygiene, not about education,” says Saurabh Katiyar, a project officer with the State Tribal Commissionerate who oversaw the initiative until recently. “Today those complaints are down to almost zero. That, for me, is the biggest sign of the programme’s success.”

It is no exaggeration to say that good food is the key to keeping children from India’s backward regions in school. Getting this right is never a given. Damodar Bond, a father of three school-going kids from Saware Pachudhara village, Palghar, recalls a time when the breakfast served to students comprised khadi shakkar (rock sugar) and peanuts. “Now they get juice, milk and protein-rich foods,” he says. “The food is so good that most families in our village are waiting for the schools to reopen after the lockdown.”

Harnessing the best

The good food mandate has been factored into the design of the central kitchens programme, and so is scale. The Kambalgaon and Mundhegaon kitchens cover about 9,500sq ft each and they have, among other equipment, enormous steam-based cauldrons, water filters, boilers and chapati-making machines. Technical and training assistance was provided by former project partner Akshaya Patra, an organisation that feeds some 1.8 million children daily in different parts of India.

Running the kitchens is a team game, given the constant pressure of preparing and delivering more than 80,000 nutritious meals a day. Each of the kitchens has some 180 people, including 10 government-appointed supervisors. The first shift begins at 2am, and trucks laden with breakfast packages leave for schools at 6.30am. The routine happens thrice a day.

Hygiene and quality are paramount. The kitchens follow mandated food and operational safety standards, with everything from raw materials and cooked food to filtered water being checked at multiple stages. Insulated and sealed delivery vehicles are used to maintain food temperature and to avoid any external touchpoints while in transit. 

Besides safety, ensuring nutritional value, taste and variety are important. Tribal families traditionally consume rice, lentils, leafy vegetables and fish. Milk, eggs and fruits are often absent from their diet. Accordingly, nutrition experts from the Trusts designed the central kitchens’ menu to incorporate the right proportions of nutrients, including proteins, minerals and vitamins. Care is constantly taken to ensure that the menu is wholesome and diverse, and special food items are introduced on festivals and other important occasions.

nutrilicious
The central kitchens’ menu incorporates the right proportions of nutrients, including proteins, minerals and vitamins

Nutrilicious

Getting it right with the humble chapati — the flatbread staple food of the Indian subcontinent — has been a learning curve for the Annapurna Central Kitchens programme.

In 2018, when thick machine-made rotis were served at the ashram school in Embur-Airambi village in Palghar, the students were not impressed. When similar feedback poured in from other schools in the initiative, the central kitchens team decided to acquire new chapati machines from Gujarat. The machines were configured to produce chapatis weighing 30 grams or less. And the children were happy.

This is a familiar pattern with the kitchens, which have been working constantly to improve the taste and nutritional value of the fare they cook up. That has meant trying to strike a balance between the customary and the new, which includes salads, fruits, traditional sweets and even wheat cookies.

The additions have made a difference. “The quality of food in the schools is much better after the central kitchen started,” says Sandip Dhodade, resident of Saware Pachudhara village in Palghar district. “Our children have put on weight over time and they get ill less often.”

Bhimdeo Rathod, a school superintendent working in Palghar district, remembers a time when students took sick regularly. That does not happen as much these days. “Our visits to the primary health centre here have dropped over recent years, with students showing better health indicators and higher levels of iron, calcium and haemoglobin in their bodies. The doctors say they don’t see us anymore!”

Besides healthier bodies, Annapurna’s good food way has had a perceptible effect on the mental well-being of students. “Five years ago, the majority of schools in the region achieved a pass percentage of 60-70% in the board exams. This year, most have achieved over 90% and 11 of the schools we cater to have got 100% results,” says Yogesh Choudhari, a supervisor at the Kambalgaon centre.

The next phase of the programme is going to be critical. The Trusts will be handing over the running of the two kitchens to TDD shortly and that means the all-important sustainability equation will come into focus. Meanwhile, the Trusts have drafted a plan to set up a similar operation in tribal-dominated Gadchiroli district in eastern Maharashtra.

With its impressive track record, the central kitchens programme has reaffirmed the potential of nutrition-led interventions to deliver long-lasting and positive change at the grassroots.

Besides improving health, Annapurna’s food has also improved the mental well-being of students