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Inside the world's biggest school lunch project
00:54 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The Akshaya Patra Foundation feeds 1.4 million Indian students a free midday meal every day

At Akshaya Patra Foundation-sponsored schools, student enrollment is up by more than 20 per cent

The project aims to keep children in school for longer

Jaipur CNN  — 

Nine-year-old Kushi confesses to being a dreamer, and says she knows exactly what she has to do to make those dreams come true: stay in school.

What’s surprising is that in India, staying in school has as much to do with what’s cooking in the kitchen as what’s being studied in the classroom.

“If one child of a family gets educated, and he can stand on his feet, then he can change the entire family,” explains Shri Raghupati, a program director with the Akshaya Patra Foundation.

Chapatis by the thousands

As we tour an Akshaya Patra kitchen with Raghupati, chapatis are being rolled and baked by the thousands, large pots of curry are boiled and stirred and sweets are carefully filled with cream.

These kitchens, now scattered all over India, will serve midday meals to more than 1.4 million children everyday.

India has the largest government midday meal program in the world – feeding 120 million students per day – and its ambition goes beyond nutrition.

Since 2000, the Akshaya Patra Foundation has partnered with the national government and state agencies to expand and improve the midday meal program. At Akshaya Patra Foundation-sponsored schools, student enrollment is up by more than 20 per cent.

Students at Akshaya Patra Foundation-sponsored schools in Jaipur are entitled to a free midday meal.

“These children come from very poor families. When their food needs are not met they can’t get a good education and apart from that they will not be able to fulfill their dreams,” says Sushma Agarwa, the principal at Kushi’s middle school.

Agarwa tells me she’s relieved the foundation has taken over the program – she’s taught in schools where government subsidized meals, prepared and served at school, have made students sick.

In India, reports of school meals causing illness, in some cases even hospitalizing children, are a weekly occurrence.

Agarwa says the students at her school get balanced and healthy nourishment from the midday meal, encouraging them to attend school and keeping them enrolled year after year.

A young boy in Jaipur with his family. Many residents in the city are poor, and regular meals are scarce.

“When their mental and physical level is strong their dreams can come true,” she adds.

Kushi’s dream is to become a policewoman. Her family say that while she is committed and clever enough to study towards a profession, the free midday meal is a crucial part of her education.

Squatting in the family’s one room home, Kushi’s mother explains that times are tough for the family, there hasn’t been steady work in months. Free meals for Kushi and her two siblings at school is a welcome relief.

“I want them to get ahead in life through their education when they move ahead in life, they’ll be able to make something of themselves and be able to stand on their own two feet,” says Suman Devi, Kushi’s mother.