BURLINGAME, Calif. – The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Akshaya Patra Foundation, running the world’s largest NGO-run midday meal program serving over 1.7 million children in 14,250 schools across 12 states in India, held its 2018 Bay Area Benefit Gala fundraiser Sept. 28 at the Hyatt Regency here.

The U.S. arm of the foundation supports the ground work of the organization’s Indian pillar via funds and awareness dissemination for feeding, kitchen building and program sustenance.

“It’s very heartening to see so many people come to support Akshaya Patra,” the foundation’s U.S.-based board chair Gururaj Desh Deshpande told India-West. “We have 37 kitchens right now and 20 are coming up. We need funds to build the kitchens and to feed the children.”

Support from Indian patrons has been tremendous, according to Deshpande, an Indian American entrepreneur. The foundation’s total budget in 2017 was $87 million of which $25 million came from the Indian government; $28 million was raised in India; and $3.5 million was raised in the U.S.

“We are a small piece in the organization and that’s the way I like it. All of us outside India should be catalysts,” Deshpande told India-West. “We should give them ideas and funding for new initiatives but ultimately the country must look after itself. I am very proud that Akshaya Patra is self -sufficient.”

A big kitchen is coming up in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, the chairman said. “It is very heart-warming to see that we have come a long way. Just till five years back, we had to beg to open our kitchens in various places, and now we are invited by state governments to come and open kitchens,” added Deshpande.

Sudheesh Nair, CEO of ThoughtSpot, was the keynote speaker for the evening. Nair, known for his innovative approach to IT, shared how this opportunity can be equally relevant to the expansion of Akshaya Patra’s mission.

WestBridge Capital, an investment firm focused on India, donated $1 million for Akshaya Patra’s kitchen in Varanasi. By early 2019, this kitchen will provide midday meals to 100,000 students, serving designated schools within a radius of 40 kilometers.

“We are very happy that Akshaya Patra has enabled us to contribute towards our social responsibility,” said Sumir Chadha, managing director of WestBridge Capital.

Talking about the scale and reach of the foundation to tackle fundamental issues of hunger and education, Siva Sivaram, executive vice president at SanDisk/Western Digital and a board of director of the U.S. arm of the NGO, recalled to India-West, “I grew up in rural south India and went to a small village school. I vividly remember that many students would come to school just for the midday meal.”

“It is important for me to support hunger as an initiative,” Sivaram added. “Western Digital-SanDisk is very actively involved with Akshaya Patra in Bangalore. Many employees go to volunteer every week at the kitchens. The scale of Akshaya Patra is unmatched and I like the idea that we are making an impact.”

The formal program of the evening started with some videos on the ground reality of the herculean difficulties of hunger and survival for children in India, followed by a need to not be complacent or complicit about the problem.

“Three thousand children in India die of hunger every day. I encourage you to visit a kitchen in India. Food in kitchens in different states is based on local cuisines. I encourage the youth to join the Youth Ambassador Program,” Akshaya Patra Foundation USA chief executive Vandana Tilak said. “We are also launching the TAP Forums in cities across U.S. to set up impact funds for capital growth and to convene leaders, decision makers and entrepreneurs from business and philanthropic spectrums to engage in sustainable investment dialogues.”

The first TAP Forum in the Bay Area is scheduled for Nov. 1. Tilak added that the fundraising model is not scalable and since the Akshaya Patra kitchens already have cooking and serving expertise, the skills and the utilities can be used for making the kitchens self-sustaining.

Tilak mentioned the importance of the help of Sundaram and the team of Western Digital/SanDisk in helping them improve the operational efficiency of the kitchens, and the need for more knowledge and wisdom shared by members to improve and innovate further.

The fundraising portion of the program was headlined by celebrity master chef Sanjeev Kapoor who spoke candidly about his parents’ journey of difficulties post-partition.

Requesting the audience to open their wallets for a great cause, Kapoor said, “We can make Akshaya Patra bigger. There is a small degree of inertia that we have, though intrinsically we are all good human beings.”

To learn more about The Akshaya Patra Foundation, visit https://www.foodforeducation.org.

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