It was 26th January 2001, I was busy cleaning my bicycle as I had to go to school for the Republic Day function. I heard some strange noises and the ground below me started shaking. Most of the scooters and cycles around started to fall. Suddenly a hand grabbed me by my neck and dragged me to the road. The next I see is my building swinging like a pendulum – a sight that I’ll never forget. The earthquake in Gujarat was one of the worst India had seen in a long time. Though the epicentre was in Bhuj, the entire state was shaken.
Nobody knew what was to be done. I only remember playing with the elder kids of the building as all the adults made arrangements to sleep on the road. People staying in societies nearby prepared food and served us. Some nights we had food parcels given by relief workers. I fondly remember receiving food packets with poori and aloo subzi for dinner one night. That truck was there for a few hours and I saw them giving food to many other people. That was my first interaction with the Akshaya Patra foundation.
A few months back an email landed in my mailbox inviting me to the Ultimate Mega Kitchen in India – The Akshaya Patra Kitchen in Hyderabad. I had always been eager to see how they managed to cook so much food for so many people! And last weekend I visited the Akshaya Patra Kitchen in Khandi, Hyderabad.
The Story of Akshaya Patra
It was during one of the festivals in Mayapur, Calcutta, a gathering was organized and food was served. There was some food that was leftover which was dumped nearby. Acharya Srila Prabhupada observed that a few children were fighting with a group of stray dogs over the leftover food. Seeing this heartbreaking moment, he took it upon himself to ensure that every child within a 10kms radius of the centre wouldn’t go hungry. And that was the foundation of the World’s Largest Mid-Day meal program – The Akshaya Patra.
With the vision of “No child in India shall be deprived of education of hunger“, Akshaya Patra started the mid-day meal program in June 2000. It was a humble start as they served about 1500 children in 5 government schools. Soon there were a lot of applications from other schools nearby to provide them food too. They had to scale up the operations and that’s when the likes of Mohandas Pai and Abhay Jain helped to bring donors to contribute to this noble cause.
Slowly and steadily they started serving many more children across Karnataka. Seeing the effectiveness of the mid-day meal program, a lot of government officials invited Akshaya Patra to set up kitchens in their states and help them beat hunger. They expanded their operations out of Karnataka to places like Rajasthan, Gujarat and even in the northeast. This snowballed and that’s when the Govt. Of India stepped in to take this to an unprecedented scale.
Akshaya Patra is built on a Public-Private Partnership model and works with the Government of India, State governments and philanthropic donors. They currently have more than 50 centralized kitchens across the country that can serve close to 200,000 meals a day! Some of these kitchens feature amongst the largest kitchens in India. Many kitchens are ISO 22000 certified and combine best management practices along with innovation and smart engineering to provide fresh, nutritious and hygienic lunches in schools every day.
The Massive Kitchen at Akshaya Patra
I was filled with pride when I was invited to visit one of their largest kitchens in India located at Khandi Hyderabad. Akshaya Patra Kitchen started its operations in a small shed in 2017 in Narsingi. They continued to serve food even as the demand grew until a point operating it became a challenge. That’s when their 2nd largest kitchen in India was established in Khandi in 2018. This massive state of the art kitchen is funded by the Infosys Foundation and is no less than a smart factory. This kitchen is one of their centralized kitchens that deliver food to schools nearby.
We were taken on a tour of the entire property by Yagneshwara Dasa who is the vice-chair here. He briefed us about the foundation but we were all excited to visit the ultimate mega kitchen. After our temperature checks, we were taken to the sanitization area. We passed through an air tunnel and were provided headgear, slippers and other necessary items before we entered the kitchen.
The Storage Area & HiTech Rice Sorting facility
We started with the storage area. It’s here that the dry ration along with vegetables comes in via trucks. We say sacks of rice, flour and pulses are stacked in the room. The aroma of masalas was filled in the air as we saw a fresh load of vegetables come in. We also saw a machine that was automatically making bags of pulses for the happiness kits.
We then entered the rice cleaning area. A two-storey, hi-tech rice processing setup awaited us there. The foundation receives rice from donors and the Government of India. The stacked sacks of rice were massive. Telangana being a rice-eating state, this mega kitchen cooks a whopping 14 tonnes of rice every day! And hence the quality of rice is extremely important.
The team has installed a highly advanced optical rice sorter. This innovative machine can sort rice and remove foreign material using high-speed cameras, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The machine can sort up to 18 tonnes of rice in an hour! That’s massive again. (you’ll see a lot of exclamation marks in this post, but I can’t help it) The rice is then stored in a silo which is then supplied to the main cooking area. There’s also an oil tank that holds refined all that is required in the cooking process.
Another important piece of equipment we saw was the masala pulverizer. The kitchen is able to make 28 distinct varieties of Sambhar and this machine helps them ensure that the masala is pure and unadulterated.
The Pre Processing Area
We then moved to the first floor which is the pre-processing area. The entire floor is divided into two halves, one for the rice and the other for dal and vegetables. The rice side has a massive area to clean the rice that is received via pipes from the silo. There are 14 chutes where the rice is poured in which goes directly into the cooker on the floor underneath.
The other half has some advanced machines that help the kitchen chop vegetables and clean the dal. We saw vegetable cleaning machines with the latest technologies. There were a couple of vegetable chopping machines that could chop 500 kgs of vegetables in an hour! They also had an innovative potato peeling machine too along with massive wet grinders. Since this region is all about sambhar and rasam, tamarind is a key ingredient. They also have a massive tamarind squeezer that helps them get tamarind juice!
Production Area a.k.a Kitchen
This is where the complete action takes place. This is the heart of this massive Akshaya Patra kitchen that serves almost 100,000 meals every day. The kitchen has more than 20 massive cookers that can cook up to 140 kilos of rice and sambhar.
Remember the chutes from the pre-processing areas? They open directly into these massive cookers. So the rice cleaning machine cleans and stores rice in the silo, it is then cleaned and put through the chute into the cooker. A handsfree process.
These massive cookers are highly advanced and versatile. The entire kitchen has conveyer belts laid across the surface. As and when the food is ready in a cooker, a container reaches beneath the cooker and the operator just presses a button. This smart cooker pours exactly the required amount of rice/sambhar that the vessel can contain. These are then packed and loaded into the trucks that deliver the food across Hyderabad and nearby areas.
The entire kitchen is a no-fire kitchen and they have a steam generation plant that pumps steam to the entire facility. They also had these massive vessels to help them make curries and tadka for sambhar. No wonder the Akshaya Patra kitchen was featured on National Geographic’s Mega Kitchen show!
Quality is top priority
The last but the most important area that we visited is the quality lab. The ultra-modern lab is where they test the food before it is sent out. They measure everything from adulteration in raw material to the calorific value of cooked food. They have some advanced hi-tech gadgets that help them ensure that the quality is always maintained.
Being a science student, I had read about Kjeldahl’s method in class XII. It’s a method to determine nitrogen content in substances. It’s able to detect protein content in food items. And I saw this machine in the quality lab! That’s when I realised how things we read in books are applied in real life. They also had advanced stirrers and hygiene meters.
Akshaya Patra Happiness Kit
Apart from the massive midday meal program that Akshaya Patra does, they do a lot otherwise as well. Being a receiver of their service during the earthquake, I was aware of all that they do. Whenever there have been distress calls, Akshaya Patra folks have been there to help the needy. Even when Covid struck, they were shut only for 3 days! They were at the front line during the pandemic serving lakhs of meals to the needy. If
Especially during the lockdown, they provided happiness kits to families. During my kitchen visit, I also got to see one of these happiness kits. The kit is for a family of 4 including 2 children. It contains flour, salt, pulses, biscuits, jaggery, masalas along with books, pencils, toothbrushes, soap and sanitary napkins. At the time of writing this, Akshaya Patra has distributed more than 15,00,000 happiness kits!
An honor to visit Akshaya Patra Kitchen
From seeing a 1L rice cooker at home to witnessing a 140L rice cooker at the Akshaya Patra Kitchen, I was awestruck. Keeping the cause aside for a bit, this is massive engineering. The technology they use here is incredible. I mean using machine learning and AI to separate rice! That’s just insane. But operations of that scale require such insane and incredible innovations.
We were also served some pulihora, pongal, buttermilk and some sweets that were prepared in the kitchen itself. The pure vegetarian saatvik food was nothing short of special. It was an incredible visit and we saw how the foundation is doing towards eradicating hunger. You can also choose to help them by donating in any capacity that you can. I’ve personally donated a few meals in the past years. Nobody is forcing you, but if you feel to join the noble cause, checkout Akshaya Patra website to know more.
That’s about my unique experience of visiting the Akshaya Patra kitchen. It felt surreal walking to a kitchen that’s so hi-tech and massive. It was like I was on Nat Geo’s megastructure show itself! I truly enjoyed the experience. I know this became quite a lengthy post. I tried to cover everything that I experienced at the Akshaya Patra kitchen. Do let me know your thoughts in the comments below, tweet to me at @Atulmaharaj, DM me on Instagram or Get In Touch.