In India, the World's Largest School Lunch Program

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Associated Press

Students at a government school in Hyderabad have lunch on World Food Day 2009

Narasimha Das is on his way to feed 169,379 hungry children. A devotee of Lord Krishna, Das oversees operations in an industrial-size kitchen in the Hindu religious town of Vrindaban, about a three-hour drive from New Delhi. As he reaches work, the pebbles on the facility's driveway crunch softly in the semidarkness of a nippy October morning.

It's only 3 a.m., but the kitchen, run by the Akshaya Patra Foundation, already exudes the warm fragrance of freshly baked chapati. Thirty men in overalls and mouth and hair guards silently labor over tons of wheat flour and dough. They have less than five hours to make tens of thousands of rounds of Indian flatbread that will be loaded onto heat-insulated, dust-free delivery vans and transported to 1,516 schools in and around Vrindaban.

As the world's cameras focus on India this week, with U.S. President Barack Obama making his first visit to New Delhi, scenes like this one — and the problems it underscores — are not likely to capture much of the international spotlight. Despite its optimistic economy and growing geopolitical clout, India continues to be home to more undernourished children than any other country; 42% of the world's underweight children under age 5 live here. A global hunger index released this month by the International Food Policy Research Institute ranked India 67th out of 84 countries on indicators like child malnourishment, child mortality and calorie deficiency.

It's hardly a new problem. To address the enduring and intertwined problems of hunger, child malnutrition and illiteracy, India launched the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the largest school-lunch program in the world, back in the 1960s. Today the program feeds 120 million students every day across the nation. Akshaya Patra, a Bangalore-based nonprofit, is its largest nongovernmental partner, running 17 kitchens across eight states and providing hot meals to more than 1.26 million children every day at their schools. The program aspires to feed 5 million children by 2020; described by Obama as a "powerful demonstration of what's possible when people work together," it today runs on a public-private partnership model, with 65% of its funds provided by the government.

Das, president of the Vrindaban operation, tells TIME the Vrindaban kitchen now makes 250,000 flatbreads, four tons of rice, more than two tons of lentils and between five and six tons of vegetables each morning. The menu, developed with the needs of growing children and local food habits in mind, consists of rice or chapatis and a different kind of Indian soup, like daal or kadhi (a soup made from yogurt and flour), with vegetables and, once a week, dessert.

The subject of a 2007 Harvard study about time management, Akshaya Patra began providing cooked, nutritious meals on its own initiative for 1,500 schoolchildren in Bangalore in 2000, a year before India's highest court made it mandatory for the government to provide cooked meals to children in all government and government-assisted primary schools each day. "It was shocking how much a meal, which we take for granted, meant to these children," says Chanchalapathi Dasa, vice chairman of the Akshaya Patra Foundation. In 2006 the NGO hooked up with the federal Mid-Day Meal Scheme, which has been a huge success and is seen as key to helping India meet its Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and achieving universal primary education. That program's funds increased from approximately $670 million in 2005-06 to slightly more than $1 billion in 2006-07.

Despite its success, Akshaya Patra's guiding principle has remained the same: that no children in India will miss out on education because they are too hungry to attend. For more than 13 million children in India, attending school is not a priority because if they don't work they will go hungry. Despite repeated requests from other parts of the developing world, Akshaya Patra wants to remain focused on India. "We have enough hungry children to feed in India," Dasa says.

Later in the morning, the Akshaya Patra delivery van arrives at the Gopalgarh Primary School, a little more than a mile away from the kitchen. The children look out expectantly as the familiar thud of the food containers being unloaded from the truck reach their ears. Laxmi Binodini, the headmistress, says attendance has increased from 120 to 200 students since the program started in her school four years ago. The number of girls has doubled. "Parents now have an incentive to send the girls to school. Previously they would be taken off after [age 9] to stay at home and do the cooking and other chores," Binodini says. A survey by Akshaya Patra showed that since its kitchen started in Vrindaban in 2006, attendance in the town's schools rose from 80.6% to 92.4% and the proportion of underweight children dropped from 38% to 26%.

When the gong sounds for lunch break at noon, the children tumble out of the classrooms. They wait while the teachers dole out the soft chapatis and steaming lentils and vegetables. Laxman, a 12-year-old boy, returns for seconds. In keeping with its name, which means an inexhaustible bowl of food, Akshaya Patra allows as many helpings as the children want — as long as they finish what's on their plate.