In a school in rural Maharashtra that is rooted in the philosophy of open education, food is seen not just as a way of offering nutrition, but also as a means to building equity and breaking barriers.
At Tamarind Tree, a school that is built firmly around the idea of open access and knowledge, the school’s kitchen is a vital part of learning. Started in 2010 in Dahanu, Maharashtra, most of the students who attend the school are first-generation learners from the tribal community of Warli. “Food was never looked at as merely a way to feed our students. Instead, we think of how we can build equity through nutritional food and also break class barriers,” says Michelle, a co-founder of the school.
Rooted in the belief that children from rural and economically disadvantaged backgrounds have the right to a good and meaningful education, the school’s efforts are directed towards empowering them to be independent and lifelong learners. The school doesn’t follow traditional methods of classroom learning in which children are entirely dependent on their teacher for knowledge. Instead, it fosters a culture of learning through which students learn in numerous and diverse ways—digital technologies playing a crucial part—and the teacher’s role is more as a facilitator and mentor. At present, the school has around 80 students between the ages of 6 to 14.
On every working day, two wholesome meals—breakfast and lunch—are cooked and served to the students and staff. Typically, each student eats one meal at the school, and so the idea is to give them a nutritious and balanced meal, especially since malnourishment is rampant in the region. The meals are planned meticulously by their food-tasting committee (a group of four adults) who ensure that the food is fresh, of high quality, and tasty. If the food isn’t up to the mark, the tasting committee has the right to reject it.
The more you speak to the core team at the Tamarind Tree, the more you realise how dedicated they are when it comes to running their kitchen. At the center of this is co-founder Hemant, who laid the vision for the school’s nutrition program, especially given that the students come from historically oppressed backgrounds.
Hemant’s approach to shaping the school’s view of food is defined by having a deep understanding of the Warli tribe’s history, and adopting a non-patronising attitude towards them. “Political sensitivity is key, you have to understand that no ideas are absolute,” says Hemant. After all, these are indigenous communities whose dietary habits have changed over the years owing to factors such as not having access to forests anymore, which they once relied on for berries, tubers, nuts, and meat.
Hemant cooks in the school kitchen every day, and this is something that gives him a tremendous amount of joy, satisfaction, and motivation, he tells me. What makes him especially happy is that if you ask children at Tamarind Tree what they like about their school, food will certainly be very high on the list. So, what does a typical meal look like?
While the ingredients for cooking are sourced locally and in tune with the season, they also use vegetables from their own patch of garden—such as tomatoes, bhindi, and green chilli. Children can eat as much food as they like, even though there’s an emphasis on a balanced diet (for instance, they are required to have a bowl of dal for lunch). “If there isn’t any salad or fruit even for one day, they come and ask us what happened, and why it’s not there,” says Michelle.
Although the team is passionate about food, they admit that running a school kitchen can get challenging, especially when there’s a genuine focus on keeping the quality high, and maintaining a certain level of diversity in food. The food is cooked in their own kitchen by a team of three women, two of whom are parents of the children, which also means that they are equally invested in the school’s vision.
Apart from focussing on nutrition, the school also attempts to expose children to diverse food that they may not otherwise have access to in their daily lives—like idlis and dosas, for instance. During celebrations and festivals, as a way for children to discover different flavours, there is also the occasional pani puri, hummus sandwich, dabeli, noodles, and so on. Often, parents of the students are also invited to school to get a glimpse of what their children are eating.
What sets them apart from other schools is also that they recognise the potential of the kitchen as a space for learning and creativity. “One of our science teachers takes all the spices to the class. If there are tasting and smelling activities for younger ones, they are also given foods that illustrate that,” shares Michelle. Younger children are taught to read the daily menu, and they are encouraged to express their likes and dislikes of food served in a book that records preferences. Not only does this help with their language skills and comprehension, but this also gives them a vocabulary to express their thoughts about food, and understand that their views matter.
Although they cook at scale, Tamarind Tree is conscious of making sure that there is minimum wastage. Every day, the staff takes a photo of the leftover food. If there is any, it is only the adults who consume it, and on principle, never the children. But the aim is to also keep costs low since they work on a tight budget, and the kitchen costs are typically high. The school’s annual budget for the nutrition programme, which feeds approximately 80 children, is around 5 lakhs. The school’s thoughtful approach to food and its pursuit of perfection in the kitchen isn’t always easy to explain when it comes to raising funding for it, especially since its impact is long-term, and the results take time to show.
But for those at Tamarind Tree, nutrition isn’t just about eating. It’s about learning to live, and leading joyful and healthy lives. “We see food as a means to not just better the diet of our kids, but as a learning for life. We build scientific understanding of food so that the next generation will understand and build a nutritious diet into their life,” says Michelle.
Tamarind Tree, a registered charitable trust based in Dahanu, Maharashtra, is looking for support to build its nutrition programme, and seeks donors to cover a budget of approximately 5 lakhs per annum. All donations are exempt under Section 80G. Any amount, small or large, is welcome. To donate, kindly click on https://tamarindtree.org/contribute-2/