closeup image of young child's face in India
Friday, December 15, 2017
Lesanne B. Fliehler

Across the globe and miles away from Iowa, University of Iowa students spent three weeks of their winter break last year in Bangalore, Karnataka, India, learning how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are stepping up to feed and meet the nutritional needs of millions of schoolchildren.

Students were enrolled in Nonprofit Organizational Effectiveness II: Youth, Nutrition, and Foods of India, taught by Jill Smith, lecturer in management and entrepreneurship. The course was one of five taught during the 2016-17 India Winterim Program, which began 10 years ago. While each course is different, the weeks in India are devoted to learning about and developing solutions to real-world problems. The courses are taught through a combination of lectures given by University of Iowa professors, local representatives of partner organizations, and invited guest speakers. And most of the teaching/learning occurs outside the traditional classroom.

Smith, who has a Ph.D. in community development and nonprofit management studies, has focused much of her work on poverty. She says the Akshaya Patra Foundation “matched up well” with her course’s focus on nonprofits, nutrition, and food insecurity.

“There has been a significant rise in the number of new nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over the past decade, and India is at a nutritional and dietary crossroads with changing patterns in youth food consumption and health outcomes,” Smith says. “As nonprofits develop to meet those needs, now is the perfect time to give UI students the opportunity to study nonprofit organizational development in India and in the United States.”

Across the globe and miles away from Iowa, University of Iowa students spent three weeks of their winter break last year in Bangalore, Karnataka, India, learning how nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) are stepping up to feed and meet the nutritional needs of millions of schoolchildren.

While in India, the students learned about the leadership and management skills needed for the day-to-day operation of NGOs like Akshaya Patra, the world’s largest NGO-run nonprofit mid-day meal program. Every day it provides 1.6 million lunches through its 26 kitchens to schoolchildren in almost 14,000 schools in India. The India FoodBanking Network estimates that 3,000 children in India die every day from illness related to a poor diet. Akshaya Patra and other NGOs are trying to change that.

Smith’s lectures focused on the leadership and management skills needed to operate a global nonprofit organization and how public-private partnerships can help meet the nutritional needs of India’s schoolchildren. Other topics included
government support, fund-raising models, scalability, and public-private partnership models.

As part of the course, students also toured Akshaya Patra corporate offices. Students had access to the heads of many departments and to the company CEO.

“This is a substantive, multimillion dollar organization that opened up its books so students could learn how the company works,” Smith says.

Also as part of their studies, students visited an Akshaya Patra kitchen, learning about food preparation, packaging, and delivery. More than 250,000 meals are produced daily in just this
one kitchen.

“Every day they are preparing rice and samba, a mixture of vegetables and nutrients,” says Lakyn Hanson, an enterprise leadership major from Sioux City, Iowa. “There are several floors, and the food moves from one area to the next very efficiently. After the food is prepared for the day, there are still women in the kitchen preparing vegetables for the next day’s meals.

“In our visit to corporate headquarters, we learned they are trying to expand into the rural areas to serve children who don’t attend school, but trucks can’t access those places,” Hanson says. “They drive as far as they can, and then walk the rest of the way so these children get at least one meal a day. It’s heart-breaking.”

After a tour of the kitchen, the students followed the food to a local Delhi Public School where they served it to the children and interacted with them, learning about the educational system.

“The classrooms might have four different age groups working together, which is different from what I’m used to,” Hanson says. “Some children spoke a little English, others were in the process of learning, but we were able to communicate through
hand motions.”

As part of their studies, student teams were created to conduct research on a partnership that might be possible between Akshaya Patra and some other company that could help raise funds or that might build a partnership in the United States. The company currently has partnerships with the government of India, various state governments in India, and with other businesses.

Throughout the 20 days in India, students reflected on their experiences at the end of the day by writing blog posts and posting images. These were available to parents, too, who enjoyed keeping up-to-date on their student’s travels and experiences.

“The visit to the school lifted our hearts, souls, and experience of India,” wrote Molly Kelly, international studies major, in her blog post. “The children from young ages to teens ran to us, waved from afar, and giggled to one another as we entered the school walls…This day was filled with memories I will never forget. This journey has just started, and I am excited to see where it goes!”

A study-abroad experience wouldn’t be complete without some cultural excursions as well. Evenings were filled with music and dance concerts, yogic exercises, religious performances, and exploration of Southern India’s food culture through a hands-on cooking class with Shazia Khan. Khan was a runner-up in MasterChef India Season Two and is a member of the board of management at Delhi Public School in Bangalore North.

“The Akshaya Patra employees, the chefs, all have a ‘go big or go home’ mentality especially when it comes to work…,” wrote Abby Musser, health and human physiology major, in her blog. “These words spoke a lot to me, especially since I am still trying to decide what I want to do for a career.”

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the India Winterim Program. More than 1,100 students and faculty have participated since it began. Other courses focus on pressing contemporary societal issues such as biodiversity and sustainability, education, housing, health care, and water resources, among others. In addition, in 2016 the India Winterim Program was the recipient of the prestigious 2016 Institute of International Education (IIE) Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education. It was also featured by the IIE Network as a “best practice” in international education.

The time spent in India is fun yet deeply meaningful to the students.

In her blog post, electrical engineering major Colleen Gannon wrote, “[The people we met] appreciate our visit so much that they actually thank us for coming to them when really we’re the lucky ones to learn about their foundation.”