A Delhi-based organisation prepares and delivers nutritious meals to those who need them the most.

Women in aprons, their heads covered, stir with giant ladles the kadhi that is bubbling in cauldrons. As the turmeric-laced, savoury concoction made of yoghurt gurgles over the fire, the pakodas that will soon be dunked into it sizzle in giant woks placed in another corner of the kitchen. The food will soon be ready, along with a vegetable accompaniment. If it is kadhi today, it could be rajma-rice, chana-pulao or puri-sabzi on other days. The children for whom this food is prepared enjoy the variety and taste — and there is no compromising on that.

By 9.30 a.m., the food is ready and packed in 20-kilo steel containers which are tranferred to the nearby anganwadi as part of ‘Sabla’, a nutrition programme for girls run by the Government. The food is also supplied to pregnant and lactating women and children under six, under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme.

From machinery to pots and pans

Delhi-based Ashok Rao, whose organisation, the Swami Sivananda Memorial Institute (SSMI), runs five such kitchens catering to around 116 anganwadi centres in Jahangirpuri, brings his talent as an engineer to this project. To combat the problem of urban hunger, Rao took premature retirement from BHEL and worked on the Jahangirpuri model, named after a resettlement colony in Delhi that is also the largest recycler of plastic waste spewed out of the city.

“What disturbed me was that the government spends Rs 25,000 crore annually on its food programmes, and everywhere there is waste and corruption,” says Rao. If used carefully, this money could provide nutritious food to the intended beneficiaries and also create employment for women and buttress the earnings of small and marginal farmers by eliminating middlemen.

There are three basic principles behind the Jahangirpuri model. Transparency — achieved not through food inspectors, but by locating the kitchen in the midst of the community.

Accountability, by hiring local women, and by ensuring hot, cooked meals, since the kitchens are only a few metres away from the anganwadis. As opposed to getting the food processed in mechanical or semi-mechanical, capital-intensive kitchens that minimise human intervention, these decentralised, low-investment kitchens maximise women’s employment without compromising on food safety.

Hygiene is achieved through standard operating procedures. Every stove is numbered, and the samples of food cooked on different stoves are tagged to enable investigation of complaints. So far, no complaints have come to SSMI, indicating that its quality control arrangements are effective.

The SSMI began with eight women to run its kitchens. They in turn, formed a self-help group (SHG). Today, there are eight such SHGs on SSMI rolls in Jahangirpuri, with each woman worker earning around Rs 2,000 a month. Apart from this, they are given free meals, uniforms, and transportation.

Project coordinator Parmeshwar Parida stresses that for him, the quality of the food is of primary consideration. “When the project from the State Government first came to us it was for 45,000 beneficiaries. We decided to scale down because we wanted to prepare food that made a difference. Now SSMI has the capacity to reach out to 15,000 beneficiaries,” he says.

Parida shares a good relationship with the women workers in the kitchen. He keeps a keen eye on the food that is being prepared, and has drawn up a daily chart of activities that the women follow religiously.

Mona, 40, who has been working in the SSMI kitchens for the last seven years, says, “On the previous day we clean the rice and dal needed for the next day’s meal so we can start cooking right away. But the first thing we do is to sweep the place, wash our hands, change our clothes and then get down to our work stations by 7 a.m.”

Rao and Parida had been warned by many that an all-women workforce was an invitation for disaster. “They told us that there would be catfights and gossip. Nothing, in fact, is farther from the reality. There is, generally, a harmonious relationship between the women. Every kitchen has a mix of senior and junior members in terms of experience, and they take all the decisions between them,” says Parida.

Says Usha, 35, “We try and adjust between ourselves if someone gets late or cannot come in because of a family crisis. Delivering food on time is after all our joint priority.” Usha is trained, not just in the preparation of the food, but also in the general running of the establishment, and quickly demonstrates that she can operate a fire extinguisher should the need arise.

Rao put his engineering acumen to work to conceptualise safe kitchens. The first problem was to run a kitchen from a home on a 25-yard plot, the size of housing plots in Jahangirpuri. Then, there were technical problems. How, for instance, do you expel heat and smoke from a small, windowless kitchen? “First we thought we would pump in cold air but the flames were disturbed. We finally settled for exhaust fans, with the women coming out regularly from the cooking area to hydrate themselves,” says Rao.

The women can reel off nutritional facts of the food they prepare. They can tell you that palak is good for pregnant women because it has iron; that carrot and pumpkin are rich in micronutrients; and that chana is a great source of protein. “Cooked food prepared by community women provides a chance for the community to learn to feed themselves. It is a platform for health education, which must be the focal centre of any social welfare programme,” adds Rao.

Iksha Chhabra, a nutrition expert with the SSMI, observes that programmes like the ICDS and Mid Day Meal scheme were meant to provide only supplementary nutrition. “Unfortunately, either because of ignorance or extreme poverty, this is sometimes all that the children get to eat, which is why it is so important that quality is maintained,” she says. No one understands this more that the women who sweat over fires to cook the food. As Mona explains, “Many mothers in Jahangirpuri work as labourers and have no time or money to ensure wholesome food for their children. That’s why we always make sure that our food tastes good, because we believe that the children who eat it are our children too.”

© Women's Feature Service

(This article was published on October 18, 2012)
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