London: The Akshaya Patra Foundation (TAPF) holds a record in serving the largest number of mid-day meals in the world. It raised quite a few eyebrows when it began serving free meals in British capital London – a city known for its riches and financial prowess.
Indian Narrative sits down with Bhawani Singh Shekhawat, Global Mentor and Trustee of TAPF UK to understand what motivated Akshaya Patra to launch its UK initiative and how has its charity work been perceived in a G7 country.
Shekhawat says that the same idea which motivated it to provide mid-day meals to school children in India prompted it to launch its work in the UK. He says that a large number of children are vulnerable to the food crisis in the UK, therefore Akshaya Patra decided to address the issue of nutrition here as well. The charity which works in a PPP (Public Private Partnership) mode in India now makes hot, fresh and nutritionally-balanced meals that cater to British tastes.
IN: What motivated you to initiate free meals in the UK? How did you get this idea for a rich city like London?
BSS: Akshaya Patra was set up 22 years ago on a strong foundation of the best of what India has to offer. The founders wanted to set up something that was truly transformational. India was mushrooming and its cities were creating opportunities for education and jobs. However, when people were leaving their villages they were also leaving a food secure system.
There may be problems in rural areas but it is unlikely you will go without food. A rural food secure system is not present in cities.
The government wants children to go to school but children became vulnerable to food access and nutrition in cities. Therefore, Akshaya Patra decided that children should not go without food and school. This was our story in India.
We have been present in the UK since 2010 as a fund-raising organisation and we noticed that the pound went a long way in feeding children in India. We were raising money in modest amounts in the UK for our programme in India.
For us the pivotal moment came when the British House of Commons discussed an all-party report on hunger which said that more than a million children were missing out on food. Hunger impacted poor families more because schools were closed and children were not getting meals.
My eyes popped out. It was not possible. The UK is a G7 country with just 20 million households and 1.2 million children going hungry was a large number.
We at Akshaya Patra decided to understand this better. Luckily, we had a great partnership with the London Business School and they worked dedicatedly with us on this project. Its final report was even more alarming. So, we decided, if not now when?
In 2018, we started scoping it. This was unknown territory. Even as we were working on the project, Covid happened. It exacerbated the crisis for families, the homeless, the elderly and university students. Covid and the hybrid system of work meant less job opportunities for university students as many cafes closed down. On top of it, food inflation in the UK touched 17 per cent, squeezing the poor and the students further.
Now there are multiple reports on food poverty. Nearly one-fourth of the children are believed to be deprived in the UK, which means either they have less food or poor-quality food.
IN: What were the challenges that you faced in the UK. It does sound incredible that an Indian organisation should undertake charity work in the UK.
BSS: Well, even as we were looking into the problems of hunger in the UK, we were aware of headwinds. People did tell me that this is not a common problem. Some said “you are an organisation from India”.
Among other reactions, we were also told that “you are vegetarians”. I guess people have not overcome feelings that India is a former colony and a poor country. But I strongly believe in the triangulation of faith, science and systems which India has in plenty.
In short, I was told “Bhawani you are wasting your time”.
Then I began to meet people – deprived sections and families. This opened up my eyes to the problems in the UK. That only made my resolve stronger.
We reached out to another British organisation – God My Silent Partner (GMSP) which conducted due diligence on Akshaya Patra and gave us funds to set up a kitchen. This kitchen was the first of its kind and we made between 5,000-7,000 meals a day. By now we have served nearly 700,000 meals since the end of 2020.
We are providing hot nutritious vegetarian meals according to the UK palate. We better all government guidelines. We are lower in cost and high in nutrition. And, our meals are going to the homeless, elderly, and university students.
IN: The concept of hot, vegetarian meals in the UK. Does it not sound alien or different in the UK and this society?
BSS: Akshaya Patra got a good response to its food from the people who have been accepting our meals. We have a three-course meal which includes a hot mini meal, fruits and pudding. Children like to have tasty food, therefore, we included pasta, shepherd’s pie, lasagna, baked vegetables, spaghetti, Mexican rice and falafel to cater to different tastes.
The pudding could have a carrot cake, banana loaf or an apple loaf. In the UK we now have 14 menu items and also serve biryani once a week.
Our food is high on nutrition not on calorific value.
Children in a classroom need to eat differently – food that is high on ‘Prana‘. We work on the basis of the science of nutrition. We think food for the classroom is as important as it is for runners or for people in other disciplines.
IN: Do people think or associate your effort with a religious entity or a religion? What is the reaction of people?
BSS: This is not even a question here. In the UK, faith, service and charitable organisations have been working together for a long time. So, nobody raises eyebrows here. We work with church-based organisations and our food is ferried across London by taxi drivers who are Muslim.
There are people who do not eat meat but everyone eats vegetables.
Also, with meats many people are selective due to a variety of reasons – some want halal, some kosher and others have their own preferences. But with vegetarian meals, you reach 100 per cent people at a low cost with high nutrition.
My question is why should food be politicised? We should focus on what is appropriate for children. The world over, children are not eating fruits and vegetables. We need to address the nutritional deficit.
With vegetarian meals, I think Akshaya Patra has derived the perfect equation – low cost, high nutrition and high reach. With meats, the cost of providing animal-based protein goes up disproportionately in procuring, transporting, storing and food safety.
IN: What has been the response to the free meals?
BSS: We take feedback regularly. That is how we devised our palate in London. It is because of feedback that we came to know the elderly are struggling for food. We remain in touch with the local authorities – the councils – as well as head teachers in schools.
Sometimes when we introduce a new food item, we involve children and parents in the preparation and cooking.
IN: There is the cost-of-living crisis. There also is a global food crisis. Do you think this is likely to exacerbate in the coming days?
BSS: There is a massive nutrition deficit. Half the world is hungry and the other half is obese. It is a global crisis. But I can’t really comment on the global shortage of food.
In the UK, they have poverty maps. There is a national debate over food and nutrition here. Fortunately, important people are talking publicly about poverty and food here.