Re-imagining Nutrition in India: Developing Local Solutions

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Source: Ashoka

India had a very poor level of malnutrition before the COVID-19 crisis. Several programs like Poshan Abhiyaan, ICDS etc were launched by the government, NGOs and other agencies. Although most of these interventions did not show high or significant improvement in the nutrition status of the country, it did address the fall in the nutrition level. Improvement in nutrition requires sustained intervention over a longer period of time. With the sudden lock down, things have fallen apart. Mid Day meals are one of the largest feeding programs in the world and has stopped, so has the ICDs / Anganwaadi centres. These were one of the most important interventions to fight malnutrition. These interventions were supposedly short term to medium term but most of these interventions lacked the long term vision. Nutrition cannot be achieved without developing the capacities and agencies of the individuals to be self reliant. And because of this lack of vision, we are staring down at the severe malnutrition grip of the entire country. The malnutrition challenge in India is not just about awareness, but it is about choices and behaviours. Most women suffer from anemia is a common knowledge, but does this mean that women are given the priority on the dinner table? Every mother knows that fruit and vegetables are important for their child, but how many of them can prioritize as well as afford it? For affordability we have to look at local solutions. Food fortifications and iron pills are in fact completely antagonistic to this. And for prioritization, we have to work on the behaviour change. Behaviour change comes from empowerment and sustained mentorship.

At Farm2Food foundation, we help communities to develop their own nutrition improvement strategies. We have been directly responsible for the establishment of more than 3500 School Nutrition Gardens in the Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur and Delhi. We have trained state Poshan Abhiyaan teams as well as ICDs teams, Anganwadi workers on nutrition security through Homestead gardening. We have been instrumental in encouraging the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) to come up with School Kitchen Garden program for 1.2 million schools in the country. 

With the community, we have been promoting local nutritious vegetables and encouraging adoption of healthy behaviours. We have been building capacity of the families to establish their own Homestead gardens. Be it our school education intervention, livelihood intervention or now relief operation, we have always made sure that homestead gardens with local vegetables is done alongside other activities. In all these interventions, we have identified two key players who can change the game; viz a) Mother and b) Child. Children in the families are encouraged to take up the leadership in setting up Homestead gardens and mothers have been encouraged to include the vegetables into their diets regularly.

Immediate Action: Relief packages should include local vegetables. These vegetables should be as much as possible procured locally. We should avoid handing out biscuits and other similar materials. These food habits are not sustainable for the communities. Encourage the recipients to set up Homestead gardens. These homestead gardens should have local vegetables which are easier to grow as well as provides better nutrition to the family. 

Mid Term Action: Apart from launching livelihoods interventions in the community, focus should also be to help communities achieve nutrition security. Draw up a midterm to long term nutrition security plans for the community. Homestead gardens are for immediate as well as midterm consumptions.  Animal husbandry, Fruit forests around the community, conservation of the bio diversity etc are some of the midterm to long term actions. Build the capacities of the communities to take the lead on this. Local solutions are the best and the most sustainable ones. Avoid introducing exotic seeds, alien super foods or fortified foods. It sounds fantastic and may provide short to midterm nutritional benefits. But it leads to dependency of the community on external agencies for their own nutritional/ food security. World is full of examples where agencies distributed super foods to increase the nutrition level of the community. When these agencies leave the community, it is back to square one. 

Long term Action: Policy advocacy on localisation of intervention design and development. A comprehensive livelihood policy should be drawn in which food and nutrition security is one of the key pillar. The practice of running Health intervention, livelihood intervention and education intervention separately should be discarded immediately. Not just the government several CSOs are also guilty of propagating this myopic style of functioning. Activities like MGNREGA could look at creating fruit forest, Community vegetable garden etc.

Overall, I believe to achieve Nutritional security empowerment of local community is to develop local solutions. That is the only way out. To achieve SDG goal 3 (Good health and well being), SDG goal 1 (No poverty) and SDG goal 2 (Zero hunger) should include nutrition security in its agenda.