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Akshay Patra leveraging innovation and automation to deliver Hygienic Food

The Akshaya Patra mid-day meal programme, commenced in the year 2000, is one of the most important social programmes initiated in India.

Bangalore, a major centre of the Akshay Patra programme provides mid-day meals to over one lakh c hildren in the city alone. A fleet of 21 vehicles takes food to several public and government-aided schools in and around Bangalore every day. Vinay Kumar, General Manger of Akshaya Patra says, “We serve the native meal which includes rice, sambhar, vegetables and curd. The food is stored in airtight steel containers and carried to the schools where the distribution is taken care of by the school authorities. The food is completely untouched and we strictly adhere to the ISO: 22000 standards.”

Unlike in most other midday meal programmes, where the cooking takes place in unhygienic conditions or in small set-ups, Akshaya Patra’s kitchens are highly automated and centralised. The standards of hygiene at Akshaya Patra’s kitchens are as high as a hospital’s operation theatre. It is mandatory for everyone to wear gloves, shoes and a cap. None of these are reused. This minimizes manual handling and ensures high standards of hygiene.

The NGO has 14 such kitchens, most of which are designed to prepare 50,000 or 100,000 meals per day. Two of its biggest – in Hubli and Bellary (both in Karnataka) – can cook 250,000 meals per day. In some of the kitchens especially in Northern part of the country, automated machines cook almost 100,000 chapattis per hour untouched by human hands.

Each Akshaya Patra kitchen is headed by two full-time ISKCON missionaries and typically has 150 to 300 employees. The kitchens are opened as early as 2:30am and cooking starts by 3:00am. Vinay says, “Our centralised kitchen model leverages technology and innovations to maximize operational and cost efficiencies.” For instance, Akshaya Patra uses customised industrial steam generators and specifically designed vegetable cutting machines that can process hundreds of kilogrammes of rice and vegetables.

One of Akshaya Patra’s most striking innovations is its three-tier kitchen. Here, the cleaned rice, which is kept in a silo on the ground floor, is first lifted into a smaller silo on the third floor via bucket elevators. The rice is then dropped to the second floor through a computer-controlled flow valve. The washing of rice, lentils and cutting of vegetables are done on the second floor. These are then dropped through a number of stainless steel chutes to vessels on the first floor where the cooking is done.

Cooked food placed on the conveyor belts is dispensed into the boxes for final packing into custom designed airtight stainless steel containers and then transported to schools at Bangalore, Hubli, Bellary and other places at the time of lunch.

Once the cooking is over, the vessels are steam washed and the entire kitchen is cleaned. The systematic procedure ensures timely delivery and utmost hygiene. The containers are collected and returned to the kitchen where it is washed in hot water, dried and arranged to be used for the next day.

Not just the utensils, even the workers caps, gloves and boots are also sterilised after every use. “Our quality control supervisor conducts regular checks of the kitchens and on the food handlers. We ensure the nails of the food handlers are cleaned and trimmed. Face-mask, cap/head-gear, apron are made mandatory before they enter the kitchen. To eliminate food contamination, we have installed Diversey’s hand sanitizers in the entrance itself. Similarly, even the gum boots are sterilized at the end of the day. Once in six-months the aprons and head-caps are replaced to eliminate cross-contamination,” said Vinay Kumar.

Akshaya Patra also has decentralised kitchen model, where all the cooking activities of a school take place in an area close to the school itself. Decentralised kitchens are set up in remote areas of the country where difficult terrain makes setting up of large infrastructures impractical. In such areas, Akshaya Patra representatives identify women self-help groups to carry out the cooking process. They are trained and educated to prepare the meals in a healthy, hygienic manner and provided with all the raw materials and infrastructure required for cooking.

In short, Akshaya Patra combines good management, innovative technology and smart engineering.

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