A charity which feeds millions of poor children in India has joined the drive to end holiday hunger in the UK and distributed its first meals from a new kitchen in Watford.
Hot vegetarian dishes cooked for less than £2 each using a model developed to feed the hungry in cities such as Mumbai and Ahmedabad were dispatched to a school in north London on Tuesday amid growing pressure on the government to reverse its decision not to fund free school meals this half-term.
Trays of hot cauliflower cheese and mixed vegetable pasta cooked by chefs working for the Akshaya Patra charity, which produces 1.8m meals for schools daily in India, were collected by Kate Bass, the headteacher of Mora primary school in Cricklewood from a purpose-built kitchen designed to cook 9,000 meals a day.
“Desperate measures for desperate times,” she said as she loaded her car boot with cartons of food. “Even families that were managing before aren’t managing now.”
The charity is planning to set up similar kitchens in Leicester and east London and expects to keep delivering free meals to schools in the Christmas holidays.
“It might seem strange to some that this model is imported from India,” said Bhawani Singh Shekhawat, the chief executive of Akshaya Patra. “But we are bringing a tested model from a country that has dealt with this problem with speed and at scale.”
The charity also aims to sell meals to schools for less than £2 a portion – with half paid by the state and half by its donors.
Recipients at Mora primary included Atika El Mir, a mother of two, who said money was tight because her husband has had less work because of Covid. “Everything is hard times now,” she said. “This is a good idea. It is so kind.”
“It’s difficult to feed the kids at the moment,” added Dennis Perez, a design technician picking up the hot food on a scooter with his three young children. “I work full time, but after rent and bills … The council can’t give me anything because I work more than 16 hours. That’s why I grabbed this opportunity.”
Campaigners said the expansion of an operation developed to end child food poverty in India in the UK was a sign of how serious the problem had become.
“One can scarcely believe the new methods communities are having to deploy to protect children from hunger and this is another example,” said Andrew Forsey, the national director of Feeding Britain, which is lobbying the government for a permanent increase in universal credit payments and to establish universal holiday activities and a food programme.
Lyla Rees, aged eight, a pupil, came to the handout with her mother, a school governor. “I wouldn’t want my friends to go hungry over half-term,” she said.
The Akshaya Patra kitchen uses steam cookery to keep levels of fat low. The project’s backers have watched with concern at the contents of some of the lunches being put together by volunteers this week, featuring crisps and sugary drinks.
“It solves the hunger problem, but not the nutritional problem,” said Shekhawat. “It creates problems like juvenile diabetes and coronaries.”
Sonal Sachdev Patel, the chief executive of the GMSP Foundation, the donor which funded the £500,000 kitchen, said: “The way this country has responded is utterly amazing, but [many small operations] isn’t the solution.
“Hunger in the UK has been a problem for much longer than this. The solution is to bring in the technology and innovation that India is already using. They have a nutrition problem, we have a nutrition problem, but they are doing this already.”