In India, that old adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch" is just about dead, it seems, at least for millions of that teeming country's schoolkids. Dateline's Amos Roberts recently took a look at what the Indians claim is the world's most ambitious scheme aimed at feeding children a free, healthy lunch.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

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 (Translation): Put on your uniform.

ABHILASH (Translation): It's not there.

NAGAMMA (Translation): You just throw it anywhere. I haven't seen it.

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 $4 or $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 (Translation): 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.

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 (Translation): After breakfast we'd be out until the evening and only ate again at dinner. Compared to ours, today's generation is better off.

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.

VIJAR BHASKAR, KARNATAKA GOVERNMENT: 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.

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.

The principal of this school says students now find it easier to concentrate, and classrooms are getting crowded.

PRINCIPAL (Translation): This program has made a great impact. It's increased twofold. When we started we had 60 students attending school. Now we have 120.

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 (Translation): When we're working we have to treat everyone equally. We cannot discriminate based on caste. We have to get used to that idea.

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 (Translation): Come here.

Abhilash is responsible for supervising the meal.

ABHILASH (Translation): 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.

WOMAN (Translation): How does the Food Minister like the food?

ABHILASH (Translation): The rice is good. The sambar is great. It's very tasty to eat.

WOMAN (Translation): You've cleaned up your plate. How was the food?

GIRL (Translation): It was good. It's very good. If I don't eat at school every day I feel very hungry.

At least one of the children here doesn't even get one home-cooked meal. He has to beg for his supper.

LITTLE BOY (Translation): At night, I get food from my neighbours and then I go to bed. In the morning I eat what's left from dinner, then come to school.

PRINCIPAL (Translation): 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.

REPORTER: Do you look forward to lunch each day?

ABHILASH (Translation): Yes, I look forward to it.

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 agonise 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. 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. OK.

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

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.

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 chillies 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 from the processing area and it is going to the packing area through this chute and this channel.

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.

REPORTER: Raita? So yoghurts and some vegetables?

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.

REPORTER: If the dish is called sambar..

MADHU PANDIT DAS: Yeah, it has to have coconut.

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.

REPORTER: This road's pretty rough.

DRIVER: Oh, most of the roads are similar. This is a better road which we are travelling. There are a few roads which vehicles which go on a very bad road. They cannot go even 2km/h. That's slow it will go. Such a horrible roads.

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 are going to go to the US and do something like this for the children. We'll find out what's the local palate. And then we'll use the technology and we'll scale it up. And it's possible to design a menu that will address obesity, junk food, which destroys the children's health.

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.

REPORTER: How important are these meals to these particular children?

PRINCIPAL (Translation): Before they used to collapse in the hot sun. It's made all the difference. Their faces are radiant now.

















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