Improving access to fresh food in Labrador

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Labrador is much like the rest of Canada’s north. Indigenous peoples have hunted, fished and raised their families on these lands for generations. The land has suffered from the impacts of colonization, as have its people. Resource extraction has changed the face of the land. Rivers have been diverted, habitat has been lost, causing a shift in migratory patterns of the caribou, and increased levels of methylmercury continue to affect fish and sea life in the Mishtashipu, now officially called the Churchill River, more than 40 years after the construction of the first hydroelectric project. Depletion of the caribou herds has resulted in a complete hunting ban and the government also places restrictions on hunting migratory birds and fish. In Labrador, gaining access to fresh, healthy and culturally appropriate food is more and more difficult each year. Yet in face of these challenges indigenous communities mobilize to address food and nutrition needs.

“No more than one a week to eat from the river,” Innu elder, Elizabeth Penashue, told me as we sat next to the Mishtashipu and talked about the pollution in the river. Only one rusted sign outside the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay warns people to limit consumption of fish caught in the river due to pollution. Penashue thinks there should be more warnings.

Access to quality, fresh food is a challenge in Labrador. Because of the area’s remoteness, shipping is expensive and can be slow. Walking into grocery stores in the winter and finding bare shelves is not unusual. Depending on the weather, that happens in the coastal communities throughout the summer, too. The cost of food is so high that people often eat cheaper, less nutritious and more processed foods just to help make ends meet.

The Community Food Hub, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, began in 2008 as a community project initiated by the local health authority and has grown into its own non-profit organization offering food education and programming in Labrador. An estimated 80% of the people served by the Community Food Hub identify as indigenous. The hub aims to address the community’s lack of healthy and culturally appropriate foods. MCC began a formal partnership with the Community Food Hub in 2012, when the food hub’s need for a part-time food security coordinator to complement and focus volunteer efforts became evident.

Currently the Community Food Hub facilitates several different programs. The hub’s children’s garden, in which an average of 190 students from two schools participate annually, is one of the hub’s most successful programs. The garden offers an opportunity for students in grades 4 and 5 to plant, care for, harvest and cook their own foods. Students have tried new vegetables, participated in the hard work of garden maintenance and cared for plants at home. Parents are also involved, and many have reported eating new foods and growing vegetables at home as a result of the program.

Community kitchens are another way of engaging the community. Focusing on low income families, the community kitchens provide opportunities for men and women to learn how to make low cost, healthy meals with others. Participants cook and eat together, after which they take the ingredients home to replicate the meal for their families. One of the surprising outcomes of this program is the online community-building it has facilitated. Members of the group share recipes, stories and pictures of their creations with one another, encouraging community.

The Community Food Hub works closely with the local agricultural association, ensuring that information about locally grown foods gets into the hands of shoppers. A community outdoor market program was started by the hub in 2013 in cooperation with the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the agricultural association. Farmers were invited every Saturday between July and September to join the market. The market also showcased locally made goods and offered fair trade coffee. Workshops on food preservation and wild food gathering were presented, along with demonstrations and trainings to encourage local gardening. In 2015, the Community Outdoor Market ceased being a program of the hub and continues successfully under the guidance of community volunteers. The hub nevertheless remains engaged with the market, setting up healthy eating and living displays at the market each week.

Initially, the hub began a community freezer project, hoping to provide food from the land gathered by local volunteers, such as fish, wild game and berries, to people who unable to hunt and gather on their own. It started with some exciting donations, like moose and caribou meat. However, due to reduced hunting quotas and people needing to save their catch for their own consumption in the winter, food donations were limited and the project ended. A similar project run by the Nunatsiavut Government is still available for seniors and shut-ins when food is able to be harvested or donated for distribution.

The challenges of food security continue to increase. Today, another large infrastructure project, the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric (or Muskrat Falls) Dam, threatens the health of the waters and way of life for the people who live in central and eastern Labrador. All three indigenous groups in the area (the Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and Innu nations), have come together to demand either the clearing of vegetation in the new reservoir in order to reduce imminent methylmercury poisoning and perhaps even to stop the dam completely. While the Community Food Hub is not directly involved in protesting, it does organize educational events to raise awareness about the effects of methylmercury in the local food system.

Food security and nutrition challenges have no easy answer in the North. Increasing access to fresh, local food from community gardens, children’s gardens and farmers’ markets can generally happen only in July, August and September. Freezing and canning meat and produce can help bridge the gap, but the winter period when food cannot be locally produced is long. Freezing and canning food is also expensive compared to the alternative of buying processed food during the winter months. Long term solutions are needed, but, for now, the Community Food Hub offers a partial solution with its ongoing focus on education to help people learn how to make healthier choices with available resources.

Dianne Climenhage is an MCC representative for Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Learn more

 Council of Canadian Academies. Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge. Ottawa: The Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, Council of Canadian Academies, 2014.

Islam, Durdana and Fikret Berkes. “Indigenous Peoples’ Fisheries and Food Security: A Case from Northern Canada.” Food Security 8/4 (2016): 815-826.

Engaging students for family food security and nutrition

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

As a small country with a large and rapidly growing population, Bangladesh has to make the most of its fast-disappearing agricultural land. Although the government of Bangladesh prioritizes modern and sustainable agricultural technologies to maximize crop production, many farmers’ beliefs in traditional agriculture methods, despite poor production, make them resistant to using new practices that improve production. Resistance to using improved agricultural practices that promote higher production has been a significant factor in food insufficiency and poor nutrition in rural Bangladesh, especially among land-poor farmers. This article explores how MCC Bangladesh has worked with young students to increase the adoption of new, more productive, agricultural practices.

MCC assists families experiencing poverty to increase their income from agriculture and livestock production and their access to diversified food in order to improve food security and nutrition. Encouraging farmers to shift from traditional techniques to new agricultural practices is not easy, especially among those who are older and have lower levels of formal education. MCC Bangladesh has found that young and literate farmers are generally more willing to try new techniques.

In particular, students are often willing to adopt new ideas. In Bangladesh, students are also often part of household decision-making. Despite limited financial resources, most poor families try hard to send their children to school. Families hope that, after gaining an education, their children will be able to improve the family’s financial status. For this reason, families sometimes depend on their children to make household decisions even while the children are still studying. This cultural context led MCC Bangladesh to involve students in a food security project focused on using modern agricultural techniques for improved family food security and nutrition.

Under its Research and Extension Activity Partners (REAP) project which ran from 2010 to 2016, MCC Bangladesh worked in Chattra Union, Pirganj Upazila in Rangpur district, Bangladesh. A total of 900 students in grade eight from six different secondary schools were selected as a primary participants. These students took part in the project up to grade ten. Each project year, new students were selected to join, with priority given to students from households experiencing poverty. These students received training in different agricultural technologies at school outside of regular class time, with technical support provided by MCC Bangladesh staff. The project also trained school teachers in agricultural technologies to improve their understanding of the project and to equip them to support their students.

At home, students discussed what they learned about these new technologies with their parents and other family members. When their parents expressed interest, MCC Bangladesh staff arranged for demonstrations of different agricultural technologies at their homestead. These agricultural demonstrations focused on best practices for rearing milk cows and goats, calf fattening, raising chickens, fruit tree cultivation, integrated pest management and making different types of compost for homestead gardening. Each household worked with at least two or three new techniques, with the entire family involved. MCC Bangladesh staff and the school teachers frequently visited participant students’ homes to monitor and discuss the new agricultural activities.

Students’ motivation encouraged households to focus their work on these new agricultural activities. Significant changes to nutrition occurred among the selected farm families over the project period. Families’ diversified agricultural activities provided them with more fresh vegetables of greater variety, more eggs and meat, more milk and more income from new agricultural activities like cattle rearing. With the extra income, families could afford to diversify their diets while meeting other family needs as well.

Some students have been particularly successful in generating income through the new agricultural activities. For example, one young woman in Sokhipur village received training in vegetable cultivation, cattle and goat rearing and compost production. MCC also provided her material support so that she could start raising goats and making compost. Now, besides being a respected source of agricultural knowledge in her community, she sells goats and compost to pay tuition fees for herself and her three sisters and has further expanded her family’s livelihoods by purchasing two cows.

In addition to agricultural work, the REAP project also provided peace education to targeted students and parents. These trainings, alongside other community peacebuilding work, helped ensure that conflicts that might arise from students teaching parents and encouraging new practices at home could be peaceably mediated and resolved.

Through this project, MCC Bangladesh learned that involving students in extension work to diversify agricultural activities addressed the challenge of motivating farmers to adopt new techniques. Through the work of students to improve families’ skills and capacity, parents were motivated to try modern agricultural practices, while students gained additional skills and knowledge. Ultimately, the combination of approaching parents through students and setting up demonstration plots on families’ own homesteads ensured sustainable changes to food security and nutrition due to changes in participants’ knowledge, attitude and practice.

Md. Arefur Rahaman is sector coordinator for food security and Md. Mokhlesur Rahman is program director with MCC Bangladesh.

Learn more

Quasem, M. A. “Conversion of Agricultural Land to Non-Agricultural Uses in Bangladesh: Extent and Determinants.” Bangladesh Development Studies 34/1 (2011): 59-85.

Ballantyne, Roy, Sharon Connell, and John Fien. “Students as Catalysts of Environmental Change: A Framework for Researching Intergenerational Influence through Environmental Education.” Environmental Education Research 4/3 (1998): 285-298.

A holistic approach to sustainable nutrition

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The term monga describes seasonal food insecurity that affects vulnerable landless labourers in northern Bangladesh as a result of decreased employment opportunities for the rural poor between rice planting and harvesting seasons. The monga season also negatively affects household nutrition. During this time, households generally reduce food consumption to one meal or less per day, with a corresponding decline in diet quality. People consume insufficient quantities of milk, eggs and vegetables. Most households report using credit to purchase food. Poor and extremely poor households report that they experience eight to ten months of food insecurity annually. In this article we examine learnings from a ten-year MCC initiative in northern Bangladesh to improve household food security and nutrition through regular seasonal food transfers, livestock promotion, connections to markets and nutrition education.

A holistic approach to promote sustainable alternative livelihood options was required to combat such a deeply rooted and persistent problem. To address this situation, MCC Bangladesh, with funding from MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), implemented the Monga Mitigation Project from 2006 to 2016, working with 2,500 households. The project focused on increasing households’ livestock assets and improving participants’ knowledge and practice of livestock management. MCC chose this approach because participant households had little or no agricultural land, but did possess some experience with livestock management. The first phase of the project experimented with a variety of asset transfers, from chickens and goats to different cow breeds. Through action research, we found that hybrid dairy cows were the most appropriate asset for promotion, given the good market for milk in Bangladesh. The project also worked to educate participants about caring for these livestock and to establish complementary services through the training of veterinary service providers. While these services were free at first, over the course of the project participants gradually took on the costs of these services themselves. MCC also encouraged participants to access government services and to form good relationships with other private service providers like para-vets and fodder stores.

Scarcity of fodder and high prices of cattle feed made it difficult for poor families to bear the feeding expenses of rearing cattle. At the beginning of the project, the project only supported its targeted participants leasing land for fodder cultivation, including Napier grass. However, when most of the land owners did not renew the land leases, MCC shifted focus to supporting other community members involved in selling and marketing fodder grass in order to increase the availability of fodder for participants’ cows. By the end of the project, the area of fodder land had expanded through newly created businesses in the project area and participants reported easier access to fodder for their livestock.

The monga project also focused on increasing the long-term sustainability and productivity of assets by developing value chain linkages. The severe milk shortage in Bangladesh, coupled with high levels of unmet demand from both consumers and dairy processors, made dairy cows a highly appropriate asset for promotion. Therefore, in its second phase, the monga project worked to develop linkages with milk chillers so that the participants could sell their milk upmarket and increase their income. Although this proved challenging to implement, ultimately it increased income among participants. Connections with milk chillers meant that milk could be sold in the city for a higher price rather than just in the local community.

Besides long-term support aimed at increasing household income, the project also addressed immediate nutritional needs during the monga season. For instance, MCC provided lentils during the monga period to meet basic protein nutritional requirements and distributed fruit saplings and vegetable seeds for planting, the produce of which could be harvested during the monga season. Participant households received training in improved nutrition practices, including complementary feeding, exclusive breastfeeding and improved dietary diversification.

The project did encounter problems due to high poverty and illiteracy rates among participants. Given the acute seasonal food insecurity faced by participants, there was temptation to liquidate assets, and providing technical knowledge was difficult at times. To overcome these issues, MCC staff continuously encouraged participants to consider the ultimate goal of increasing their assets over the long-term. MCC also gave high priority to incorporating participants’ perspectives of community needs when designing and implementing the project. For example, MCC scheduled trainings, especially targeted at women, outside of planting and harvesting periods when participants could join. MCC staff reported back to participants on the project’s progress, with project activities modified based on participant feedback. So, for example, after one feedback loop MCC increased the quality of mustard oil cake distributed for livestock feed.

After ten years of MCC implementing this project, participants who used to be monga-affected now have assets that increase their self-confidence, income and food security, leading to improved household nutrition. Income from livestock production has improved participants’ daily life and economic status: the project end survey showed an average 300% increase in income over the income levels recorded in the baseline survey. Income sources include selling vegetables, livestock and livestock products like milk and dried dung for fuel. Improved income has had positive effects, including on participant households’ access to education, medical treatment and even land for agriculture and housing.

More secure livelihoods and earning opportunities have also improved households’ stable access to food, ultimately improving nutrition. The project’s final survey found zero months of food insecurity, compared with eight to ten months of food insecurity before the project started. Additionally, participants reported notable improvements in eating more food (meals and calories) of better quality, including higher consumption rates of a protein-rich diet. The integrated approach of diversifying livelihoods to increase income, increasing homestead production and providing nutrition training and continual motivation has had a positive impact on household nutrition.

Additionally, the project targeted women as direct participants in trainings and as legal livestock asset holders. Women were targeted because they are highly invested in care for their families, so they were considered more likely to use project inputs for the long-term good of the household. This targeting improved women’s power in household decision-making and increased their control over resources.

The project always considered the sustainability of community development by working to improve participant capacity to rear livestock without project support. MCC trained participants to cope with challenges as they arose, gradually withdrew project support and linked participants with alternate sources of most essential project services: these strategies prepared project participants to continue rearing livestock when project services ended. The project also worked to set up strong bonds within the community by implementing events designed to help community members support each other.

Providing encouragement to participants, appropriate selection of participants and holistic nurturing of assets and services to increase sustainable income were key to overcoming the persistence of the monga season. Long-term planning and holistic intervention are necessary to bring about sustainable changes in any sector. Rather than simply distributing livestock, this project supported value chain linkages and complementary service to farmers and families to sustain new assets. All of the project activities worked together to help improve participants’ food security and nutrition and develop new agricultural livelihoods to sustain those positive changes.

Md. Shahjahan Ali Sarker is a program officer and Md. Mokhlesur Rahman is program director with MCC in Bangladesh.

Learn more

CARE Bangladesh. Pro-Poor Analysis of the Dairy Value Chain. Dhaka: CARE Bangladesh, 2008. Available at www.carebangladesh.org/publication/Publication_6751088.pdf.

Rao, C.K. and Puis Odermatt. Value Chain Analysis Report on the Milk Market in Bangladesh. Dhaka: Livelihoods, Empowerment and Agroforestry Project (LEAF), 2006. Available at www.scribd.com/doc/28847769/Bangladesh-Milk-Market-LEAF.

Mother’s education as a predictor of child malnutrition in Nepal

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Many people assume that household food insecurity is the main driving force behind childhood malnutrition and stunting. Simply put, the common assumption is that children are underweight because their families lack access to sufficient amounts of healthy food. However, a research study conducted by the Brethren in Community Welfare Society (BICWS) in the southern plains region of Nepal on the socioeconomic and cultural barriers to good nutrition found a more complicated picture. The study’s findings imply that while improving household food security may be necessary, it alone is insufficient to improve the nutritional status of children. The results suggest that malnutrition and stunting in this context are the result of interconnecting socioeconomic, educational and health-care factors. This study, alongside other research, suggests that an integrated strategy that improves the overall socioeconomic well-being of families, maternal education and knowledge of infant and young child feeding practices will be more effective and sustainable in improving the nutrition of children living in poverty.

BICWS operates as the service arm of the Brethren in Christ church conference in Nepal, based in the southeastern city of Biratnagar. Since many families in BICWS’ working area are rural landless households facing malnutrition, BICWS and MCC worked together to develop a food security project funded by MCC’s account at the Foods Resource Bank that included supplementary food for malnourished children as one of the project components, coupled with kitchen gardening and support for commercial vegetable and fish production.

Despite the short-term effectiveness of the supplementary food seen in many of the project participants, some malnourished children showed inadequate growth over the year of nutrition support, necessitating their re-enrollment for another year. BICWS conducted a research project in 2015 aimed at discovering the socioeconomic and cultural barriers and risk factors to healthy childhood development and recovery. The study involved in-depth interviews with participant households whose children did not recover from malnutrition and with participant households whose children recovered quickly.

The results of the study suggest that the initial hypothesis of food insecurity as the main driving force behind childhood malnutrition holds true, though only for the most extreme cases of households experiencing poverty and debt. It stands to reason that significant debt and related financial insecurity are major risk factors for childhood malnutrition. Families burdened by large debt payments have little or no financial security during periods of stressors, such as strikes, illnesses or disasters. In 2015 Nepal underwent a number of concurrent stressors, including a devastating earthquake, nationwide political unrest, strikes and an economic blockade from India. Health was one of the first things to deteriorate. Instead of a significant drop in caloric intake, affected families chose instead to drop many types of nutritious foods while keeping the amount of food consumed the same. Lack of dietary diversity contributes to malnutrition. While 80% of interviewed families stated that they normally had enough money for food, only 36% of families consumed the minimum daily nutrition requirements, showing a large gap between perceived food sufficiency and actual nutrient sufficiency.

For the non-extreme cases of malnutrition, however, the study discovered that the low level of mother’s educational attainment was connected with the incidence of malnutrition in children. That is, in families where the mother was more educated, children exhibited fast recovery. Other research projects in Nepal support this finding. This result suggests that women’s low educational attainment is linked to community malnutrition and that encouraging education is a strong potential long-term solution.

Nutrition-specific knowledge is also important. The study found that even some educated women lacked knowledge about health care, nutrition and sanitation. Lack of knowledge limited their application of good nutrition practice. However, BICWS found that educated women were more likely to take ownership of supplemental food received and to practice new nutrition skills than women with lower educational levels, despite the fact that both educated and uneducated women demonstrated low levels of nutritional knowledge before the project started. It makes sense that women’s education is likely to have an impact on family nutritional status, given the fact that in this community women normally serve as the center of the nuclear family and generally decide on and prepare daily meals. In response to these findings, BICWS has implemented a new strategy aimed at reaching three thousand households with nutritional education, equipping families (in particular women) with the knowledge of what nutritional strategies contribute to healthy development and overall well-being.

The BICWS research suggests that women’s education can be a cushion against stressors that lead to poverty and malnutrition. Women’s education and empowerment must be emphasized, especially as women in rural Nepal are often marginalized, with limited access to education and authority. Any long-term plan for community improvement should consider increasing women’s access to education as a key strategy. At the very minimum, this study suggests that nutritional education should be emphasized in any population suffering from malnutrition.

Derek Lee was on a SALT assignment with BICWS in 2015-16. Shemlal Hembrom is the program director of BICWS and General Secretary of BIC Nepal.

Learn more

Dhungana, Govinda Prasad. “Nutritional Status of Under 5 Children and Associated Factors of Kunchha Village Development Committee.” Journal of Chitwan Medical College 3/4 (January 2014): 38–42.

Osei, Akoto, Pooja Pandey, David Spiro, Jennifer Nielson, Ram Shrestha, Zaman Talukder, Victoria Quinn and Nancy Haselow “Household Food Insecurity and Nutritional Status of Children Aged 6 to 23 Months in Kailali District of Nepal.” Food and Nutrition Bulletin 31/4 (December 2010): 483–94.

Singh, G.C. Pramood, Manju Nair, Ruth B. Gruibesic and Frederick Connell. “Factors Associated with Underweight and Stunting among Children in Rural Terai of Eastern Nepal.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health/Asia-Pacific Academic Consortium for Public Health 21/2 (April 2009): 144–52.

Addressing cultural barriers to nutrition in Nepal

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the Nepali context, household access to sufficient food does not ensure that all household members are well-nourished. Cultural beliefs about food consumption can lead to low nutritional status, particularly for highly-sensitive groups such as pregnant and lactating women and young children. Deep-rooted beliefs about food can present barriers that inhibit adoption of new, more nutritious food consumption practices. These barriers are in turn compounded by low levels of formal education in rural areas of Nepal and by strong hierarchies in families in which older, more traditionally-minded family members make decisions about food consumption in the household. This article explores the importance of engaging multiple stakeholders within the household in order to change cultural perspectives on nutrition.

One example of a common cultural practice that affects nutrition in Nepal is the categorization of foods into ‘hot’ or ‘cold’. These categorizations, unrelated to the physical temperature of food, reflect perceptions of how foods will affect the body after consumption. During critical periods such as pregnancy, lactation and illness, it is common practice to avoid eating foods classified as ‘cold’ in order to protect the body in its vulnerable state. For example, pregnant women may be warned to avoid eating certain vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables like papaya or spinach because these foods are considered cold.

Other cultural practices that affect nutrition may affect various household members differently. Baby boys are commonly exclusively breastfed until six months of age, while baby girls are generally offered their first solid food earlier, at five months of age. In some cultural groups, women family members eat meals last, after everyone else in the family has had their fill. Ultimately, these practices can contribute to poorer health status, including anemia and malnutrition for children under three and for women during pregnancy and lactation.

Lack of nutrition knowledge is the main reason for the persistence of traditions that negatively influence nutrition status in the community. In order to address this situation, the Rural Institution for Community Development (RICOD) has been disseminating appropriate nutrition knowledge and skills in rural communities of the southern Lalitpur district. In these trainings RICOD raised awareness about effective nutrition practices aimed not only at mothers of young children and pregnant women but also at those who traditionally hold decision-making power in their households, namely, the women’s in-laws and husbands. In order to ensure that such trainings, which aimed to change traditional practice, were also  culturally sensitive, RICOD’s staff focused on providing general nutritional advice, such as counseling pregnant women to consume diets rich in vitamins, rather than targeting and criticizing specific cultural practices, like avoiding green leafy vegetables (a ‘cold’ yet vitamin-rich food) during pregnancy.

Trainings generally targeted women with young children by teaching an in-depth nutrition curriculum in mothers’ groups and then reviewing and doing refresher trainings on that curriculum. Mothers-in-law were also often part of these groups, so these workshops included more powerful players in household decision-making. Additionally, RICOD organized workshops for men in the targeted households, because decisions in Nepal about buying food and about agricultural plans are traditionally made by male heads-of-household, including fathers-in-law and husbands of women with young children. Therefore, men’s understanding was crucial for households to start acting on new nutrition knowledge. RICOD also promoted learning and sharing opportunities between women and men on the importance of nutrition for women and children during vital periods. These meetings aimed to lower cultural barriers to acting on good nutrition knowledge.

More recently, RICOD organized nutrition awareness trainings for school-aged adolescents (men and women) to provide knowledge to younger generations. Not only are the nutrition facts important for these adolescents to know as future parents, these young men and women also tend to be well-placed to disseminate the information to their parents and neighbors.

In addition to teaching new information, RICOD recognized the importance of peer education in changing traditional practice. To promote learning and sharing opportunities among women, RICOD worked with existing mothers’ groups linked to local health posts to strengthen their functioning. Through these meetings, participants exchanged ideas and shared knowledge about nutrition and health. Participants then also shared the new knowledge they gained from the groups with their neighbors and relatives. RICOD also promoted kitchen gardening and empowered women by providing access to capital via revolving loans administered by these women’s groups. Kitchen gardens increased women’s access to homegrown vegetables while revolving loans stimulated small enterprises that in turn generated additional income for households to buy nutritious food.

Besides promoting peer education through women’s groups, RICOD provided in-depth training to volunteer peer educators on good nutrition practices. Peer educators are youth residing in the local community who regularly visit targeted households to encourage them to practice good eating habits. Additionally, some peer educators attend the monthly mothers’ group meetings, where they lead discussions on nutrition-related topics.

RICOD’s work has led to important learnings for future nutrition programs. In particular, understanding traditional beliefs and eating habits is essential for knowing how to promote improved nutrition practices. Broad dissemination of nutrition information should take place in order to teach many people within a community. RICOD also found that working with more than just one household member was a key to healthy changes in traditional practices. By training both men and women and both younger and older generations on the importance of nutrition and good nutrition practice, RICOD was more effective in creating change within households. Not all of this change came easily. Changing older generations’ traditional beliefs was a challenge, since it takes a long time to change traditional practice and behavior. Even now, not everyone has changed their traditional practices. RICOD’s work and encouraging results demonstrate, though, that exposure to better eating habits and continuous follow-up can lead to changed knowledge, skills and practice.

Additionally, peer education and coordination by non-governmental organizations like RICOD with other health providers, like Nepal’s Female Community Health Volunteers, are important so that people regularly hear the same message about good nutrition practice from multiple sources. Mobilization of local community members to disseminate nutrition knowledge can help lower cultural barriers through peer education and regular follow up. That regularity is key to changing long-held practices. Changing tradition is a slow process, but new knowledge and understanding can over time lead to positive changes in nutritional practice and health.

Honey Gurung is field coordinator and Ram Hari Ghimire is executive director for the Rural Institution for Community Development (RICOD).

Learn more

Adhikari, Ramesh Kant. Food Utilization Practices, Beliefs and Taboos in Nepal: An Overview. United States Agency for International Development, Global Health Technical Assistance Project (May 2010). Available at pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/pnaeb772.pdf.

Alonso, Elena Briones. The Impact of Culture, Religion and Traditional Knowledge on Food and Nutrition Security in Developing Countries. FOODSECURE Working Paper No. 30 (March 2015). Available at www3.lei.wur.nl/FoodSecurePublications/30_briones.pdf.

Khatry, Subarna K., Steven C. LeClerq and Sharada Ram Shrestha. “Eating Down in Pregnancy: Exploring Food-Related Beliefs and Practices of Pregnancy in Rural Nepal.” Ecology of Food and Nutrition 45 (2006): 253-278. Available at www.k4health.org/sites/default/files/Eating%20down%20Nepal%20article_Caroline%20sent.pdf.

Nutrition: more than just food (Winter 2017)

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Nutrition and malnutrition are often viewed as technical matters of food consumption. Are we eating the right amount of food? Are we eating the right kinds of food to get the vitamins and minerals our bodies need? This technical view of nutrition, however, misses many of the potential barriers to getting the right amounts of the right kinds of foods. In doing so, it also obscures opportunities to address the cultural and social barriers to improve nutrition. Authors in this issue of Intersections explore ways to expand our understanding of nutrition in order to broaden opportunities for improving nutrition practices and outcomes.

Although much nutrition programing still emphasizes trainings on dietary diversity or increased access to food, the idea that strong nutrition programs require a broad approach is not a new one. In the 1990s, UNICEF developed a three-layer framework of factors that affect good nutrition. At the individual level, malnutrition can be caused by immediate factors, such as lack of food or inadequate dietary diversity. At the household and community level, underlying factors like child care practices, income poverty or an unhealthy environment can also lead to malnutrition. At the societal level, social, cultural, economic and political factors contribute to individual and household willingness and ability to practice good nutrition.

This framework not only expands the picture of barriers to good nutrition beyond a technical question of calories and vitamins: it also broadens the scope of nutrition interventions. Nutrition programing can work from any of these levels, although, as we see in the articles below, work that addresses barriers to good nutrition at a variety of levels has the most potential to impact nutrition positively.

In this issue, we seek to look at how issues of culture, gender, household power dynamics and a changing environment contribute to malnutrition. Contributors from Nepal, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Canada outline contextually appropriate approaches for combatting malnutrition at different levels. While these authors write from diverse contexts, a commonality emerges from their articles, namely, the importance of local knowledge of the social and cultural context and strong community relationships in developing relevant nutrition interventions.

Leah Reesor-Keller and Martha Kimmel serve with MCC in Nepal as co-representative and food security advisor, respectively.

Learn more

Meeker, Jessica, Stephen Thompson, Inka Barnet. Nutrition Topic Guide. (October 2013). Available at www.heart-resources.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/HEART-Nutrition-Topic-Guide.pdf.

European Union and UNICEF. Multi-Sectoral Approaches to Nutrition: Nutrition-Specific and Nutrition Sensitive Interventions to Accelerate Progress. Available at www.unicef.org/eu/files/101322_000_Unicef_Brief_NutritionOverview_A4_v1r15.pdf.

Creating ecumenical ties through food sovereignty

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the rural village of Llano Alto in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico, a group of gardeners meets regularly to share experiences in cultivating organic kitchen gardens that produce various kinds of herbs and vegetables for domestic consumption. Supported by the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research (INESIN, an MCC partner organization
for which I work), these gardeners come from families that have been working the land for centuries, with most dedicating themselves exclusively to growing beans and corn, the major staples of the local diet. The idea of growing an organic vegetable and herb garden in one’s backyard is a fairly novel idea. When families have extra cash on hand, they might buy these “extras” to supplement their staple diet—otherwise, they do without. The INESIN initiative aims to foster greater food sovereignty in Llano Alto, supporting farmers in this rural community to provide balanced diets for their families. The initiative has proven successful: the kitchen gardens have attracted the attention of other farmers, leading to an expansion of the group from nine to 19 gardeners. At INESIN we view this expansion positively, yet we also know that expansion could introduce delicate dynamics into the life of the group, as now the gardeners no longer share the same religious affiliation.

INESIN began facilitating the gardeners’ group through a contact at the Church of the Nazarene in Llano Alto. Although INESIN explained upfront to the gardeners that neither INESIN nor the gardeners’ group itself is a program of the church, for the last eight months the majority of the group’s meetings have been held at or around the church. INESIN has found that churches are often good starting places for gardeners’ groups because the church space creates a sense of trust; once a gardeners’ group is formed and operational, however, INESIN encourages it to move outward into the broader community. At a recent meeting with the Llano Alto group, my coworker Marielena delicately brings up the possibility of expanding beyond the church. “Now that the gardens are growing and
we have new members, it’s a good time to begin meeting at each other’s houses,” she suggests. A few faces of the newcomers look relieved. One man explains, “Since we are not part of this church, we feel uncomfortable meeting here, like we’re disrespecting the space by invading it.” Two women from the original group disagree. “This is where we’ve always met. We don’t have the space to host people in our houses anyway.”

The discussion goes on, with the group reaching an agreement that future meetings will be hosted at the homes of group members who volunteer. But as in the case of many conflicts, what makes this particular conflict interesting lies not so much in what is being said, but rather beneath the surface of this conversation about the spaces of gardens, houses and churches.

There have long been tensions over both politics and religion in Chiapas, but the effects of the 1994 Zapatista uprising have deeply intertwined the two. Although the uprising was not clearly a movement about religion, the Zapatista movement benefited from the energy of a socially active Catholic parish influenced by liberation theology. At the same time, a
paramilitary organization in the region drew upon the resentment of the evangelical church feeling like a persecuted underdog. Political and religious tensions at times erupted into violence, most glaringly in the massacre of 45 indigenous pacifist Zapatistas in the community of Acteal in 1997.

These political and religious tensions have persisted among people of different faiths in Chiapas. Several peace organizations have developed over the past 20 years, many through the support of the late Catholic bishop Samuel Ruiz, a significant actor in the peace process during and after the uprising. When Ruiz and others dreamed about what INESIN would look like, he commissioned a group of people to “get Catholics and Protestants together to do something. Anything. But don’t talk about religion or differences. Not at first. Just get them together and talking.”

The social landscape in Chiapas has witnessed many changes over the past two decades. In the case of the community in Llano Alto, social conflicts simmer among evangelical churches, rather than between Catholics and evangelicals (Catholics have their own internal struggles in other communities). Yet Ruiz’s original commission to INESIN applies here as well, with INESIN looking to foster ecumenical relationships at the community level through collaborative initiatives around common interests.

In the case of Llano Alto, INESIN’s collaborative initiative focuses on the common interest of food sovereignty. INESIN staff give workshops on organic fertilizers and seed saving (and sharing); gardeners in the project tend each other’s plots and make small talk. When political and religious tensions arise at the community or state level, the members of the group have lived experience with “the other” that is broader and more gracious than mass media portray.

A colleague in the region once told me about a mediation session she facilitated between Protestants and Catholics. At the end of the session the two groups began talking in their native language of Tsotsil, an indigenous language commonly spoken in the highlands of Chiapas. My colleague asked someone to translate for her, as she felt so good about the progress that had been made and wanted to know where the conversation was leading. As it turns out, the two groups were talking about beans, the one thing they felt they might be able to talk about together, perhaps one of the only things they felt they had in common. This story reflects INESIN’s broader experience, in Llano Alto and elsewhere, that engaging in something so simple and complex as growing our own food is intimately connected with the simple and complex task of living peacefully together.

Lindsey Frye serves with MCC in Mexico as ecumenism promoter for INESIN, an MCC partner.

Learn more:

For further reading in English:

http://www.lasabejas.org/acteal

http://www.sipaz.org/in-focusimpunity-and-the-responsibilityof-mexican-authorities-in-theacteal-case/?lang=en

http://ncronline.org/news/global/mexicos-chiapas-state-bishopruiz-leaves-large-legacy

Hayden, Tom. Ed. The Zapatista Reader. New York, NY: Thunder Mouth’s Press/Nation Books, 1997.

En Español:

http://acteal.blogspot.mx/p/historia-de-las-abejas.html

http://www.sipaz.org/enfoqueimpunidad-y-responsabilidadde-las-autoridades-publicas-enel-caso-acteal/

http://www.otrosmundoschiapas.org/index.php/temas-analisis/41-41-indigenas

http://www.otrosmundoschiapas.org/index.php/temas-analisis/41-41-indigenas/1904-indigenasde-chiapas-entre-los-gruposoriginarios-mas-desplazadosde-america-latina