HEALTHY LIVING
07/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Free Lunch

This article was originally published in ODE Magazine.

He's in the Netherlands fundraising for new trucks and food processors, but in no time--and who could blame him?--finds himself addicted to the typically Dutch cookie treat stroopwafels. Chitranga Chaitanya Das--better known as CC Das--has already mastered the pronunciation (STROHP-wah-fuls) and will travel today to Gouda, the birthplace of this sugary treat, to place an order. Then it will simply be a matter of time before many thousands of Indian schoolchildren can enjoy stroopwafels as a dessert after their daily meal of soup, rice, three vegetables, chapatis and yogurt.

This is the constant occupation of the Hindu Hare Krishna monk: ensuring all those hungry children from his native India are fed. He and his Akshaya Patra Foundation now deliver 850,000 free meals to some 5,000 schools six days a week. Insiders at the United Nations World Food Programme consider his work among the most successful projects, and students of the prestigious Harvard Business School were full of praise for his organization in a study they conducted. The foundation's annual accounts are audited (free) by KPMG, which concluded that for every dollar that comes in, an impressive 90 cents is used to buy food. The rest goes to overhead, including truck drivers and gasoline, but excluding management salaries--since these don't exist.

It all started in the Bangalore Hare Krishna temple in southern India, explains Das as he sits--a dish of stroopwafels within reach--to explain how he unleashed a small revolution eight years ago. Das, part of the local monk community, looks back: "One day we were sitting with a couple of monks talking about how wonderful it is that we can give something tasty to the thousands of people who come to the temple each week, as is the tradition in India. But, we said, what about all those people who aren't able to come to the temple? Can we give them something too?"

That question stirred up a variety of responses. The monks wanted to give food to the local people, but if they were to distribute it on the street, they were concerned people would become lazy and dependent, which would only serve to sustain poverty. One of the monks had read in a UN report that some 45 million Indian children rarely go to school because their parents would rather keep them at home to work on the land or beg on the street. In certain parts of India, poverty is considered a fate simply to be endured. "The children who do go to school," Das explains, "must often leave at noon because they are so hungry they cannot concentrate. Poor children rarely eat breakfast."

Then the monks came up with the idea. It occurred to them that they could double the impact if they brought food to the schools: Children would become stronger, smarter and healthier, and the schools would no longer be deserted, enabling India to develop.

They started their first experiment in 2000. Fifteen hundred children from schools around the temple were provided with fresh lunches, prepared by 30 monks in the temple using vegetables from their own garden. The agreement: Anyone at school gets a free lunch. The result: Children who had never gone to school suddenly started to come. The news spread like wildfire and it wasn't long before other schools came knocking at the monks' door.

"We were working like crazy," Das remembers. Within the Hare Krishna movement, he'd already raised considerable funds for a cultural centre; this time, he collected private donations both in India and abroad and looked for sponsors from the business community. And he was successful. In the second year, the number of daily lunches reached 30,000. An impressive figure, but Das clearly remembers, "That meant we had to cut over 5,000 kilos (11,000 pounds) of vegetables a day. It got to the point that we had to start cutting vegetables the day before. But that wasn't prudent given the high temperatures in our state. When you prepare food in India, you can't be careful enough."

At that point, many others would have decided enough was enough, but Das persisted. Thus began his search for the most efficient kitchen. He bought new machines for cutting vegetables, cleaning rice and processing enormous amounts of food quickly and hygienically. The foundation now runs three industrial kitchens in India valued at some $2 million each. The kitchens were designed to be as automated as possible to minimize the need for human involvement. The pans are so big they can easily accommodate a sack of rice.

"Now we can cook enough rice for 1,000 children in 15 minutes," Das says, bursting with pride. "In an hour, we can make 10,000 chapatis. In six hours, we can prepare 250,000 meals. We process 100,000 kilos (220,000 pounds) of rice and lentils a day. That's unheard of in India."

The scope of his work continues to expand. This summer Das expects to be preparing a million meals a day. With a mischievous look he says, "We really want to get into The Guinness Book of Records."

The impact of the monks' work hasn't gone unnoticed. There's been a considerable increase in the number of children sent to school in the areas where Akshaya Patra is active. And in a 2006 study, U.S. research bureau ACNielsen showed the health of children improves at schools where the kids get a free, fresh meal. Their grades shoot up: boys' results increased by 14 percent and girls' by as much as 34 percent.

As a result of lobbying efforts by Das--who as program director handles planning, management and financing--a law has been introduced requiring schools in India to provide lunch. A few states, including Orissa, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, have chosen to give money to the monks to provide the meals. The kitchens have been equipped to allow for local differences in taste; vegetables and dairy products are purchased at local markets.

Although most of the attention and resources go to the mammoth kitchens, Akshaya Patra has also set up smaller kitchens in the poorest areas that are primarily home to tribal communities. Five hundred school lunches a day are made there. "In those areas, no one was going to school, not even the teachers," says Das. "Most people had no idea what day of the week it was. That's changing now."

In these regions, the place of women in society has increased since they started working in the kitchens. "It is not unusual for women to be physically abused by their husbands," Das explains, frowning. "Because the 700 women we have working for us feed 1,000 children, their status and self-esteem have increased."

The organization as a whole currently numbers 86 monks and more than 2,500 paid staff. "But the entire process is supervised by the monks," Das emphasizes as he munches the last stroopwafel. "Which makes sense. After all, who else would be crazy enough to get up every day at 2:30 a.m. to work in the kitchen?"

He laughs at his own joke, but confesses it's tough going. "Last year I collapsed. It is incredibly stressful to prepare yet another meal and deliver it on time, each and every day." It also explains his next destinations: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Disneyland Paris, where he hopes to enjoy some time off.

So how do he and his fellow monks keep up the punishing pace and withstand the pressure? Das takes a chain of beads from his begging bowl. "Every day I take the time to recite in the name of God for at least two hours as I slip the beads through my hands. If there's one thing that continues to keep me going, it's this practise. I've been doing it for over 20 years now, ever since I became a monk. It is thanks to these spiritual exercises that we are able to do this work. It enables us to keep our hearts open and continue to give."

And for now, Akshaya Patra will continue to give more. There are still at least 50 million undernourished children living in India--and Das can't wait to introduce them to the stroopwafel.