Akshaya Patra, the NGO run by the ISKCON temple, feeds 1.4 million children daily across India.
The name Akshaya Patra is derived from The Mahabharata. When the Pandavas were exiled into forest, the eldest of the five, Yudhishtra, found it difficult to feed his brothers, the sages and the entourage who accompanied them.
At the insistence of Dhaumya, the priest of the Pandavas, Yudhistira invoked Lord Surya, the god of Sun. Yudhishtira was blessed by the god, with the Akshaya Patra, a vessel that would give unlimited food daily till Draupadi, their wife, who ate last, finished eating.
Aptly, ISKCON Bangalore decided to name its mid-day meal programme Akshaya Patra and initiated the plan to feed needy children, irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. The programme kicked off by feeding 1500 children in five schools.
Gradually, homeless children would come to join schools for availing that one free midday meal. Seeing the success of the NGO, a year later, on November 28, 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that all government primary schools across India will have to provide cooked mid-day meals.
Today, the Akshaya Patra Foundation is the world’s largest NGO-run midday meal plan. It dispenses meals in 9,000 government schools through 20 locations in 10 states across India.
Being an ISKCON foundation, Akshya Patra gives wholly vegetarian meals, and that means no inclusion of eggs. But the matter is not as simple as that. In Rajasthan and Karnataka, provision of midday meals in schools is run by Akshay Patra, who insist on serving a strictly vegetarian fare to children.
Detractors feel the foundation is forcing the vegan regime to underprivileged children, who come from backgrounds that eat non-vegetarian food. Egg, considered to be an absolute game-changer in treating malnutrition, is a must for children, and nutritionists swear by it.
But a whole lot of vegan families in India would tell you otherwise. They raise perfectly healthy children without offering eggs for breakfast on their plates.
At least 12 states include eggs in these meals, including Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Tripura. Tamil Nadu is the most generous of the lot, providing five eggs a week to school children. Most states across northern and western India do not provide eggs in its nutrition programmes. But that’s a regional preference.
Providing wholesome meals to deprived children somehow seems more important than raging a debate over the egg. And if that meal attracts children towards education, that’s definitely an added bonus.