The reforms by the group, the Akshaya Patra Foundation, are expanding school attendance, cutting down on hunger, and, anecdotally, lifting caste divisions. Some of their innovations in food processing also hint at the potential for adding value to India's bountiful crops in ways that serve the poor who grow them.
Initially, under the national mid-day meal program, free grain was distributed to parents and school kids were sent home for lunch break. The problem: Many families sold the grain and the kids went hungry.
That was the case in Berii. Headmaster Mr. Singh points to one of the eldest girls. "She returned late to school every day and when asked why, she said, 'There was no food.' "
In 2000, a group of Hare Krishnas in Bangalore noticed the problem. They began to take the rations and deliver a daily cooked meal to a few local schools, building on a Hindu tradition of serving meals for the poor.
Soon the group received letters from other schools wanting to be included. Within months the requests totaled 100,000.
"We were shocked," says Suvyakta Das, a president of Akshaya Patra, the secular foundation formed by the Hare Krishnas to do this charity work. "We didn't realize the scale of this issue in Bangalore."
They would soon learn the scale of the issue nationwide, but for the moment the question was how to cook 100,000 lunches a day?
"Everybody said, 'This scale? Sorry,' " says Mr. Das. However Das – who graduated from a top engineering university in India – along with other engineer devotees in the group designed "centralized kitchens" capable of churning out more than 100,000 lunches every morning.