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India's Free Lunch
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India's Free Lunch
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Since 2001, all Indian primary schools have provided pupils with a free midday meal. Since then, truancy rates have been slashed and child health is soaring. Western governments are beginning to take note.

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Segment 1

TITLE
India's free lunch
VOICEOVER
It's early morning in a small village not far from the city of Bangalore. Kumar is cleaning the rickshaw that provides his family's livelihood. His wife, Nagamma, is washing the family's few dishes. And their children are getting ready for school. Abhilash, however, can't find his school shirt.
KUMAR
Put on your uniform.
ABHILASH
It's not there.
NAGAMMA
You just throw it anywhere. I haven't seen it.
VOICEOVER
Kumar doesn't earn enough to buy spare shirts for the children. After paying for the hire of his rickshaw, he's lucky to make USD$4 or USD$5 a day. So clothes get held together with safety pins for as long as possible. While Abhilash helps his dad fix a puncture, his brother and sister have leftover rice for breakfast. Their parents go without.
KUMAR
As the children got older, we worried about paying for school and food. We'd prepare food at home. We were worried about money. We just managed the expenses by saving money on the food we ate. We looked after the kids well.
VOICEOVER
These kids are lucky. Millions of Indian children go to school on empty stomachs, their families too poor to give them breakfast or even lunch. But thanks to a quiet, culinary revolution, they don't have to go hungry any longer. In a tiny kitchen on the school grounds, these two cooks are preparing lunch for 120 children. They've been doing it six days a week for the past four years. They clearly remember their own long, hungry school days.
COOK
After breakfast we'd be out until the evening and only ate again at dinner. Compared to ours, today's generation is better off.
VOICEOVER
Right now, meals like this are being prepared for 150 million school children across India. Following a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in 2001, state governments were ordered to provide free meals for all primary school children aged 10 and under. Last year, the scheme was expanded to include children up to the age of 13. But some states are going even further. The southern state of Karnataka is extending its lunch scheme all the way up to Year 10.
VIJAY BHASKAR [Secretary, Primary and Secondary Education, Karnataka Government]
So the scale of the program is mind-boggling. This is the largest such program in the world and largest such program in the country itself.
VOICEOVER
Vijay Bhaskar administers the scheme in Karnataka. He's responsible for feeding 7 million children every day. He says that before the lunches were provided, poor parents often sent their children to work, and about a million kids were out of school.
VIJAY BHASKAR
After about six years of this program, the latest data census which ended in 2007 shows that the number of children who are out of school has reduced to 70,000. So from 1 million, it has come down to 70,000. So this, I would largely say, impact is due to the midday meal scheme.
VOICEOVER
The principal of this school says students now find it easier to concentrate, and classrooms are getting crowded.
PRINCIPAL
This program has made a great impact. The attendance has increased twofold. When we started we had 60 students attending school. Now we have 120.
VOICEOVER
Today the cooks are preparing sambar, a staple south Indian dish that's like a soupy vegetable curry with lentils. This simple meal is also being used as an instrument of social change. The state government insists at least one cook in every kitchen must be from the so-called Untouchable castes.
COOK
When we're working we have to treat everyone equally. We cannot discriminate based on caste. We have to get used to that idea.
VOICEOVER
In many states, lunch has become a one-stop shop for children's health. Apart from the nutritional value of the cooked lunch, these kids also get vitamin A, iron, folic acid, and de-worming tablets with their meals. Abhilash is responsible for supervising the meal.
ABHILASH
My title is Food Minister. When the little children come with their plates, I make them sit in a row. I tell them not to talk while they eat. And I send them out in a line.
INTERVIEWER
How does the Food Minister like the food?
ABHILASH
The rice is good. The sambar is great. It's very tasty to eat.
INTERVIEWER
You've cleaned up your plate. How was the food?
GIRL 1
It was good.
GIRL 2
It's very good. If I don't eat at school every day I feel very hungry.
VOICEOVER
At least one of the children here doesn't even get one home-cooked meal. He has to beg for his supper.
BOY
At night, I get food from my neighbors and then I go to bed. In the morning, I eat what's left from dinner, then come to school.
PRINCIPAL
Now when we see some of the students, compared to four years back when there was no midday meal, I can show you some of them who used to be very skinny. They had no strength. Now we're noticing how they've put on weight. We're happy about that.
INTERVIEWER
Do you look forward to lunch each day?
ABHILASH
Yes, I look forward to it.
VOICEOVER
Well, I don't know what Australian kids would make of this meal, but I thought it was delicious, and it certainly beats the sandwiches that I took to school. But, more importantly, while governments in the West and celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver agonize over what to do about nutrition for kids, India has actually gone ahead and done something about it. And after a satisfying lunch, what better way to relax than by reading the paper. Instead of running around after their heavy meal, the kids here are taught to read aloud from old newspapers. While most Indian schools cook their own lunches each day, some are getting outside help on a massive scale.

Segment 2

VOICEOVER
Many schools now have their midday meals mass-produced in high-tech kitchens like this one.
COOK
We can see the blending of the masala powder.
VOICEOVER
It's the result of collaboration between state governments and a religious group familiar to many in the West.
COOK
Now we are entering the production area.
VOICEOVER
The Hare Krishna movement prepares 820,000 lunches in kitchens like this every school day. They call it a "gravity-force kitchen."
COOK
We have three storage silos on the top of this floor. One for dhal and two for rice.
VOICEOVER
Rice and lentils come from silos on the roof and are washed on the top floor of the kitchen. This is also where the vegetables are prepared, spices are ground, and chiles and curry leaves are fried. Then they're all poured down chutes into waiting cauldrons on the floor below. The food is cooked with steam generated by giant furnaces, and then it's ready to drop down to the next floor.
COOK
Now the sambar is ready and, from the processing area, food is going to the packing area through this chute and this channel.
VOICEOVER
Finally the containers of food are packed onto a fleet of custom-built vehicles, which deliver the meals to schools in and around Bangalore. The logistics are so remarkable that MBA students from Harvard Business School are using it as a case study of time management.
MADHU PANDIT DAS [Hare Krishna Missionary]
I think there is a ... not "I think": We definitely feel that there is a divine touch in the food that comes out of these kitchens. There's a divine touch, there's a special taste to it. This is called raita.
INTERVIEWER
Raita? So yogurt and some vegetables?
MADHU PANDIT DAS
Yogurt and some vegetables.
VOICEOVER
Madhu Pandit Das is the Hare Krishna missionary and engineer who designed the gravity-force kitchen.
MADHU PANDIT DAS
You know, some of these processes are so laborious, we could have done away with, but still we do it. For instance, coconut grating. To grate coconut to put in sambar for 100,000 children is no joke. We could easily avoid coconut. It doesn't make much difference. But it makes a difference in the taste. Because sambar means it has to have coconut.
INTERVIEWER
If the dish is called sambar ...
MADHU PANDIT DAS
Yeah, it has to have coconut.
VOICEOVER
There are 4,500 schools eagerly waiting for their meals, and each van visits roughly a dozen of them. Considering the state of the roads, and the traffic, it seems miraculous that the lunches reach the schools on time.
INTERVIEWER
This road's pretty rough.
MAN
Oh, most of the roads are similar. This is a better road which we are travelling. There are a few routes with vehicles which go on the very bad road. They cannot go even 2km/h. That's [how] slow it will go. Such horrible roads.
VOICEOVER
Because the Hare Krishna movement tops up government funding with donations from its members, it can spend more on meals than individual schools. It also adopts regional menus in different parts of India, churning out roti and meat curries in the north, for example. The man who designed the kitchen says it can be replicated anywhere in the world and it could even help cure the obesity epidemic in the West.
MADHU PANDIT DAS
So let's say if we ever go to the U.S. and do something like this for the children. We'll find out what's their local palate. And then we'll use the technology and we'll scale it up. And it's possible to design a menu which will address obesity, junk food, you know, which destroys the children's health.
VOICEOVER
Even in India, schools are becoming targets for junk food. There's been a push recently by biscuit manufacturers to have their products included in the lunch menu. But the man who runs the program here says there will be no cookies in Karnataka.
VIJAY BHASKAR
Well, I would only say that children would like only a hot cooked midday meal. Because any person who has seen children eating a hot meal would know that no cookie can substitute for it.
INTERVIEWER
How important are these meals to these particular children?
MAN
Before they used to collapse in the hot sun. It's made all the difference. Their faces are radiant now.
TITLE
[end credits]