Yes, Feed Their Minds, … but not on a Hungry Stomach


At the Akshaya Patra Gala, from right, Manisha Gandhi, Alyona and Sanjeev Kapoor, Omi Vaidya, Emily Rosenbaum and Vandana Tilak.
Photos: Navin Mediwala

By Jawahar Malhotra

SUGAR LAND: It’s a pretty simple notion, one that was implemented by the British in the Madras Corporation in 1925 and by the French in the Union Territory of Pondicherry in 1930: provide a mid-day meal to children in school so that they could better concentrate their minds on studying on a full stomach and also have the nutrition that they lacked in their impoverished homes. The state government of Tamilnadu pioneered the same program years later in 1962. By 1998, it was implemented across India and in 2001 the Supreme Court mandated that government-assisted primary schools provide cooked midday meals.

But the reality of implementing it has been a lot harder, as many schools struggled with producing the nutritious meals that were required. Into this vacuum came Akshaya Patra, now a 16 year-old NGO, which has grown to today feeding 1.6 million students in 13,210 schools each day through 26 kitchens across 11 states. The non-profit is able to do so through a well-managed program of cooking food in a hygienic, clean efficient centralized kitchen and then delivering it across town in trucks outfitted to keep the items hot. The AP story has become so well-known in India that many state governments – like Gujarat – have asked for the NGO to step in and take over their midday meal operations.


Helping run the live auction, from left, Akshaya Patra USA CEO Emily Rosenbaum, emcee Omi Vaidya and Manisha Gandhi, the Regional Director of Development.

The size and logistics of the work is staggering and could only be achieved through a product delivery system that is computerized and constantly monitored. Apart from that, there is a constant need to supplement the money provided by local governments and Indian charities as well as funds donated from overseas well-wishers through the Akshaya Patra USA foundation based in Stoneham, Massachusetts which has 18 chapters across the country.

The Houston Chapter has been run for the past two years by Manisha Gandhi, the Regional Director of Development, who is also the TV Asia Correspondent and a well-known local activist in the Bayou City. She has also been instrumental in starting the chapter in Atlanta and doing fundraisers in Tampa and other cities too. Gandhi organized this year’s Houston Gala at the Marriott Hotel in Town Center, Sugar Land on Friday, October 7 to which over 350 people came and contributed to raise $150,000.


Indian TV Chef and star of the popular longest running cooking TV show Khana Khazana, Sanjeev Kapoor shared his experiences growing up and what prompted him to become a chef.

Gandhi was assisted in organizing the Gala by a host committee of area notables: Surinder and Lalita Trehan; Dr. Vivek and Madhavi Kavadi; Bimla and Swatantra Jain; Mani and Anuradha Subramanian; Amit and Arpita Bhandari; Bal and Rita Sareen and Raman and Savita Das. Additionally, area businesses Karat 22, Sehgal Diamonds, Cox and Kings (Kerala Package) and Deep Foods were sponsors of the live auction items. The food for the evening was catered by Bhojan restaurant, whose owner Haren Mathuria also attended.

The key draws for the Gala were emcee Omi Vaidya, of the Bollywood movie Three Idiots fame and Indian TV Chef and star of the popular longest running cooking TV show Khana Khazana, Sanjeev Kapoor. Vaidya joked about being born and raised in LA, his one-hit movie and spun off other Bollywood star stories and helped run the auction.

Gandhi described her visit to an AP kitchen in Jaipur and being touched by the kids at the school she visited. Indian Consul General Anupam Ray and his wife Amit stayed briefly, enough for Ray to laud AP for its work noting that the World Bank’s recent report stated that more people have been pulled out of poverty in India and China than any other time in history. He ended by declaring that “Akshaya Patra is also about fulfilling spiritual needs.” A group of dancers from Rathna Kumar’s Anjali Performing Arts Center performed two colorful and intricate classical dances.


A dancer from Rathna Kumar’s Anjali Performing Arts Center performed an intricate yet delicate classical dances balancing on a brass plate with a full lotta of water on her head.

And finally, Sanjeev Kapoor strode onstage in his Modi jacket and started off talking about food within the Indian reference and what prompted him to become a chef. “I didn’t know anyone who cooked and didn’t enjoy cooking as a child,” he said. “But growing up, I wanted to help support my family and at 17, I got an internship and with the money I got, I bought my mother a washing machine.” He noted that little kids don’t always get as lucky as he did but through AP, he felt that kids were getting a chance to get ahead, “and we must make sure to maximize these steps.”

Akshaya Patra USA CEO Emily Rosenbaum was on hand also, as she was last year, and she showed slides from her trip to India, stating that in August, AP had served its 2 billionth meal, to great applause. She then described how children were being forced into the labor market in India, though 30% of them were malnourished and elaborated in great detail about AP’s work and how much more there was to be done. Vandana Tilak of the National Board of directors also described her experiences.

Gandhi thanked everyone and said she was “honored in being part of this noble cause. Houston’s raised funds will provide meals for 10,000 children for an entire year!” adding that “Chef Kapoor and Omi Vaidya were truly amazing, we were lucky to have them here!”