One Thousand Rupees a Day!!!!!!!

Heather, my older daughter asked me, "How much are you spending a day on food?"  I had just told her how food costs were much too high and I was looking at cutting back.  I'm under constant pressure IN INDIA to cut back on food costs.  Before I left I complained to the staff, "We are spending ONE THOUSAND rupees per day on food!!!"  So, it was good to be out of India, talking to my daughter about the costs.  When I told her, she asked how much that was in US dollars and I said, "about $20."  Then I laughed, at myself.

For $20 a day I feed 12 children, six staff, myself, with several others present for lunch also.  This money includes cleaning supplies and toiletries.  It does not include milk, because I pay for that out of pocket because people would be more horrified if I included that.  Milk is about Rs. 4000 a month, or about $80 a month.  In the next budget year I will separate out food from cleaning supplies, because I want to document what it costs to keep a place clean. Shishur Sevay is very clean.  In Kolkata one is at constant war with dirt.  We live, 12 children, and me, in 1200 sq. ft.  The only marble is in the two bathrooms.  That was a political statement about how NGO's usually spend money and where they usually put the marble.


Well, back to the food!!!!  From the beginning I have been under fire for how much I feed the children. In the first year I felt like staff thought I was trying to "poison" the children with too much vegetables and protein.  I finally protested that I was tired of hearing that Indian children can't eat that much.  I reminded people that I was a doctor, had raised an "Indian" child and I had friends who raised Indian children.  I took out the USDA charts of nutrition and reminded people that this is why they all wanted their kids to go to the US.  But I think it also goes deeper, to the emotion and disapproval that ORPHANS are getting more food than others.

What do I actually feed the children on $20 a day including cleaning and laundry, etc?  Breakfast is usually a cereal and milk of some sort, some days egg, some days vegetable and chapatti.  It varies.  I've taught the girls to make French Toast, but they do it with chillies!   Lunch is the main meal of the day, with supper mostly being rice with leftovers.  But lunch is fish 2-3 days a week, chicken once, and alternating panir, channa, curried egg, neutrala (a soy product they don't really like but I do — a health food).  Each day they have two vegetables, rice, dal, and fresh salad of some sort, cucumber, tomato, carrot, according to season. Most days they have lassi or some other yogurt.  It's good for the stomach.  The girls average two fruits a day.  The LOVE fruit.  Usually it's banana and orange.  The four little ones get fresh squeezed orange juice every day.  Rani is fussy so she often gets pomegrante.

The principal of a school where I wanted to send the handicapped childen came to see our home.  She clearly was not happy with what she saw and could not wait to get out.  I'd say she was almost rude about it.  The feedback I received is that I was feeding the children too much.  She saw on one tray BOTH an egg and a piece of fish.  She also saw TWO vegetables!!!  It seems that Indian children only need one vegetable a day.  I received  a stern lecture as feedback.  The other criticism was that I was not authorative enough with my staff and they did not respect me.  (I can't ever seem to get it right.)  Needless to say, schooling there did not work out.  I took the children out when I found that the staff would not give them water in the four hours they were there.  These are my handicapped who cannot speak.  But when we would pick them up they would each stick out their tongues, which is how they ask for water.  The water bottles we brought were full.  The school principal would only agree to "look into the matter."  She wouldn't simply tell me, "I'll make sure they get water."  My children are treated as orphans, but in truth they are no longer orphans.  Whatever the paperwork, they have a mother who fights for them, for their education, for relief of their hunger and thirst.  I was accused by the school of trading in education for water.  But really it was about what kind of human being doesn't give water to a thirsty child?  Who were these people I was entrusting with my children.  And what sort of principal doesn't just say, "Don't worry, I'll make sure they get water?"

I include meals for the staff at Shishur Sevay because I want to.  I don't like, and the girls don't like, a separation of who eats what.  This is unusual here with employment, but the staff eats what we do.  It's also a way of keeping them healthy. I know from experience that if they brought lunch it would me simply rice and dal.  There would be no protein.  When we buy treats, the staff shares them too.  The girls automatically offer food and treats to staff.  I love that they do this.

I feed the children because I believe this is very important for their health.  They are incredibly healthy as a group.  We probably have a total of 10 sick days in the year (for all).  One girl reminds us she has NEVER had a fever.  Another won the attendance record in school last year.  Stomach troubles — maybe two girls a month but it's always gone by the next day. The handicapped children are all under sized; their lungs don't work as well. Their circulation isn't as good.  I worry about them more.  I love watching them eat protein and vegetables and fruits and yogurt.  It makes me happy.  Our water is filtered.  Our staff is trained in cleanliness, and there is soap everywhere.

I happen to love soap.  In the years with Johnson & Johnson I decided I could be happy promoting soap all over the world.  I love it because everywhere I've ever been people love to be clean.  I love driving down streets in Kolkata and seeing that at every spigot people are bathing.   If it were not so intrusive and subject to misinterpretation, I would do photographs of people bathing, mothers holding children covered with lather, pouring clean water over them to rinse them off. 

Back to the food though, I'll assume that 80% of the cost is actually food.  So that would be Rs. 800 a day for food.  Fruit and vegetables cost about Rs. 100 each.  Fish is Rs. 250.  That leaves only Rs. 350 for rice, dal, staples — all the other foods and cooking items.  Rice has almost doubled in cost in the four years since we started.  The same is true for the other staples. 

I sit here in NY where carry out lunch for Cici and me costs the same as a day's food for Shishur Sevay.

My mind goes to another question I have been asking lately, "Why SHOULD orphans be poor?"  What is the moral imperative that says they should not be "spoiled" with too much food, as though society sets a bar above which their needs should NOT be met.  "Thou shalt not have more than non-orphans!"  When the girls came I was warned by the head of the government institution that they should not get used to shampoo.  More than one official has said this.  I answer that I love the smell of clean hair so that's why I indulge them, not for them, but for me.  I got them used to using soap all the time by saying, "Mummy loves the smell of clean hands," and they happily lined up for me to smell their clean hands.  I truly understand they may not forever be able to afford shampoo and soap, depending on how their lives go, but this is not a reason to deny them.  In today's economic world no one can assure one's children that they will always have what they had as children.  As for learning to do without, the girls at Shishur Sevay know that already.

Why should orphans be poor?  I understand why they are poor.  They don't have family to take care of them!  But why should I, or any other orphanage director or board or donor KEEP them poor?  What if we were to change the paradigm?  I have a different view of orphans now.  I believe they are potentially a strong force for supporting their country, identification with country where family and community do not exist.  I find that their level of compassion for others often surpasses those around them.  The ones who have lived alone on the streets are true survivors.  They are strong.  They are a force that can be directed for good work and contribution to society.

Well, that's at their best, AFTER I fight with them to eat their vegetables.  I know it is not so simple.  I know they live with "shame" at being orphans, and I wonder why a child should feel shame at what has been done to her.  The victim carries the shame of the perpetrator.  These girls have been abused.  So they have shame.  But the shame should be on those who are content to see them hungry and alone.  I think about that too… all the people for whom they were invisible on the sidewalks, the train stations… all the people who stepped over them, around them, handed them or didn't hand them a rupee.


This morning's Telegraph has an opinion piece on government care of orphans.

 My mission when I began Shishur Sevay, was to get the girls out of such an institution.  I want to impact on how orphans are treated, what is considered adequate, what it takes to raise them, heal them, discipline them, feed them.  First it requires a paradigm shift and then the will to carry it out.

I have to remember, "one take-out" lunch in New York. I'm not over-spending at Shishur Sevay.  Maybe I need to stop discarding the monthly milk bills   Maybe the REAL cost of food is $25 a day, not the $20 I have been pretending it to be. 

OMG:  One Thousand Two Hundred Rupees a Day!!!!!!

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March 2010
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