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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Nearly half of all small children in India are malnourished. And there's now an effort under way to change that using school lunch programs.

But NPR's Shankar Vedantam found during a recent visit that the math of the undertaking is, well, daunting. How can you provide a fresh, nutritious meal cooked from scratch every day to more than a million kids when all you have to spend on each meal is 11 cents?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: The answer to that question means a lot to this 13-year-old girl I met at a middle school in Bangalore.

SUCHITRA: ...fairy went a-marketing. She bought a little fish.

VEDANTAM: Her name is Suchitra. Suchitra is struggling to learn English. When I meet her, she's reciting a poem about a fairy and a goldfish. She has pigtails and blue ribbons. With her bright eyes and quick mind, I can tell she's hungry to learn. But most of the time, she's just hungry.

On many mornings, there's nothing for breakfast. On those days, she tells me, the thought of school makes her cry. Her teacher said she looked unhealthy when she arrived about a year ago.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

VEDANTAM: The teacher says Suchitra's skin was discolored. Medicines didn't help. She didn't have an infection. She was malnourished. The teacher tells me she's seen lots of kids drop out because of hunger. If that happens to Suchitra, all her potential - her love of music and dance, the fact she's so dedicated to learning - none of it will matter.

But Suchitra's story isn't a tale of woe. It's actually a success story. And it's built around a program that's figured out how you place a very nutritious, freshly cooked lunch every day before more than a million schoolchildren. And yes, it's found a way to do it at a cost of 11 cents per meal.

Outside Suchitra's classroom, I see men unloading giant containers of food. Lunch is being set up.

When they opened the containers, I see the food's piping hot. The kids have been waiting all morning. Dozens of them get in line.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

VEDANTAM: Suchitra piles her plate and sits down on the floor to eat with her classmates. I ask her what she's eating.

(Foreign language spoken)

SUCHITRA: Tomato, beans, carrots.

VEDANTAM: Tomatoes, beans and carrots. Nutritious vegetables cooked just a couple of hours ago.

American parents would love their kids to eat food this fresh. All over India, hundreds of thousands of children are sitting down to eat lunches like this. They're the result of a public-private partnership that has turned into one of the world's largest school lunch programs. By 2020, it's expected to feed 5 million children every day.

Suchitra still comes to school with an empty stomach, but now she knows she'll eat at school. She says it's made it possible for her to come to school regularly.

SUCHITRA: (Through Translator) After eating this food, I have become stronger. That's why I'm able to come to school and study and play.

VEDANTAM: The lunch program has done more than fill her stomach. It's allowed Suchitra to dream of a life she wasn't supposed to have. She now imagines going to college to study science and one day to become a software engineer.

SHRIDHAR VENKAT: Feeding a child is not charity.

VEDANTAM: That's Shridhar Venkat, who directs this massive school lunch program through the Akshaya Patra Foundation. He used to be a corporate executive. To him, Suchitra is not a hungry 13-year-old girl in poverty. She's an opportunity. Giving her lunch is an investment. Tomorrow, an educated Suchitra can produce a huge return on that investment for her community.

VENKAT: Our vision is to see that no child in India is deprived of education because of hunger.

VEDANTAM: No child in India should be deprived of education because of hunger. That's a vision for tens of millions of children. It's a messiah-type vision. Venkat doesn't look like a messiah. He's a clean-cut guy - glasses, buttoned-down - an engineering-type. In fact, he is an engineer and his program has designed an engineering solution to keep hungry kids in school.

VENKAT: We have never failed to deliver a meal on any day in the last 11 years.

VEDANTAM: So you're saying that of the 1.3 million children you have right now, who get meals every single day, there has not been a single day the children have not gotten meals?

VENKAT: Yes, absolutely.

VEDANTAM: Giant centralized kitchens prepare hundreds of thousands of meals every day. Trucks deliver the food to schools. Every aspect of the program has been engineered for efficiency.

The program is so cost-effective it's become a Harvard Business School case study. To me, it looks like a strange marriage: ruthlessly efficient corporate management techniques married to a goal that's deeply emotional.

VENKAT: So we want to do things with heart. It's not to just build large kitchens. All these large kitchens have a big heart.

VEDANTAM: I had to find out how this marriage of heart and mind come together. On this morning, it's before 6:00 when I get to one of the centralized kitchens. Dozens of workers have been toiling since 3.

They chopped mountains of fresh vegetables. There's steamed lentils. Buckets of turmeric and other spices are ready. It's fresh cooking on an industrial scale. There's no butylated hydroxyanisole or sodium benzoate, no preservatives because everything made in this kitchen is going to be eaten by 100,000 children within four hours.

On the main floor, workers are attending to 10 large steel cauldrons. And giant bubbles are rising up in this cauldron making little splashes. I'm seeing turnips and beans and carrots and leaves.

Once the mixture of rice and lentils and vegetables is cooked, it's packed in a sterilized container. In seconds, the container's on a truck.

Within minutes of being cooked, the food is on its way to a school. When Venkat, the lunch program director, looks at this operation, he sees room for improvement. He's now developing algorithms so trucks take more efficient routes to school.

VENKAT: So we are trying to optimize here by doing route cost optimization.

VEDANTAM: The trucking and delivery cost of each meal is about 1 cent. With efficient routes, Venkat might save a fifth of that 1 cent. Multiply that tiny amount by a million and the savings feed another 20,000 kids.

Venkat's obsessed with data. He's recently noticed more children are coming to school on one particular day each week. It's the day the lunch program includes dessert.

Now, do the children know on which day the dessert is going to come?

VENKAT: They know. But we are trying to keep it a secret so that they keep guessing and they come to school.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Independent audits of the program have found it's having a profound effect.

VENKAT: The school attendance goes up, malnutrition level comes down, dropout rates come down.

VEDANTAM: Not only is the dropout rate falling, more girls are showing up at school. And children who started on the lunch program a decade ago are now finding jobs. Venkat eagerly tells me the story of one young man who came to visit him.

VENKAT: So he said, sir, I'm - I was the son of a security guard. My father used to earn 30 to 35 rupees every day...

VEDANTAM: His father used to earn 30 to 35 rupees. That's less than a dollar a day. The young man told Venkat he was in the eighth grade at the time. He was so hungry, he used to faint at school. Academically, he was scraping by. Then the free lunch program started.

VENKAT: So he told me: My attention span went up. My concentration went up. I was...

VEDANTAM: So did the boy's grades. He went on to college, became an engineer, and then Venkat says the young man handed him an envelope.

VENKAT: And the envelope was he had an offer letter from India's leading multinational software company as a software programmer.

SUCHITRA: (Foreign language spoken)

VEDANTAM: Remember that girl I met at the start of this story with the big dreams of becoming an engineer? This is the payoff Venkat is hoping to see in her life. If she turns out like that young man with the envelope, it's hard to imagine a smarter investment of 11 cents.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

CORNISH: To see a slideshow about Suchitra and to learn more about this school lunch program, visit npr.org.

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