Travelling in rural India always yields rich insights into how poor women struggle to provide that little extra, in terms of food, for the family meal.

It was in the village of Vijaypura – in the drought prone Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh – that I came across Bharati, a 39-year-old farm woman and homemaker, working her everyday magic by laying out slices of potato and whole green chillies on the tiled roof of her hut. “I dry all the extra vegetables that come my way during harvest time so that my family can eat something during summer, when the fields are parched,” she explained.

A few months later, I found myself in Chhali village in the Gogunda block of Udaipur district and came across a farmyard that had a patch of straw lying seemingly inconsequentially in one corner of the field. Tucked away under it, like a batch of golden eggs, were eight large, earth-coloured pumpkins. These, carefully managed, would provide the family with a vegetable dish for at least three months of the year – and pumpkins (Cucurbita moschata), remember, are high in beta carotene and other important micronutrients.

It is precisely practices like these that Dr C. Gopalan, one of India’s best known nutrition scientists, had advocated for a post-Independent India that was looking to put its tragic legacy of famines and hunger behind it. Today, well into his nineties and still involved in his work, the former director-general of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) never misses a chance to reiterate his views emphatically. In a 2010 article for ‘World Nutrition’, a journal of the World Public Health Nutrition, Gopalan argued that “the most holistic and the most sustainable and therefore the best physiological approach to ensuring the nutritional well-being of women” is the food-based approach to nutrition, adding that “this calls for a clear understanding of locally available foods and cooking practices and the nutritive value of these foods… We must look to our farms, not our pharmacies, to solve our nutrition-related problems.”

The focus, according to Dr Gopalan, should always be on the local and the affordable. His former colleague and present director of the Delhi-based Nutrition Foundation of India, Dr Prema Ramachandran puts it this way, “India has a wealth of local vegetables. Take the ‘greens’ family, innumerable varieties abound depending on the region – the ‘palak’ of Punjab or ‘ponnakerai keerai’ of Tamil Nadu, to name just two – and we always advocate eating vegetables that are regionally grown.”

According to Dr Ramachandran, an obstetrician by training who embraced nutrition when she realised that “nutrition is half of health”, common sense should guide all decisions about the selection and preparation of food. Says she, “The same food, in different portions, can be assigned to every member of the family, from the toddler to the elderly grandparent. But here quantities matter – for instance, a person who is doing hard labour in the field would obviously need more calories; an adolescent child going through a second growth spurt in his or her life, requires nutritional care; an expectant mother would benefit from adequate nutrition at frequent intervals.”

Explains Dr Saramma Thomas Mathai, regional team coordinator, Maternal Health, in UNFPA’s Bangkok office, “Good food is the foundation of life. Ideally, a woman who is expecting baby should be over 18, at least 40 kilos in weight and over 4.9 feet in height. She will also have to gain at least 10 kilos over the period of her pregnancy to give birth to a healthy baby. That is why ensuring that right from infancy women’s daily diet should be nutritious, becomes so crucial – none of this ‘I will eat last and least’ stuff.”

In fact, according to recent recommendations of the ICMR, a reference woman is aged 18-29 years, non-pregnant, non-lactating and weighed 55 kilos with a height of 1.61 m, or 5.3 feet. The earlier recommendation was 50 kilos. Most Indian women, of course, fail this grade.

Dr Mathai also argues that because the prices of food are rising by the day, it becomes important to maximise the use of available fare. “Unfortunately, the poor believe they cannot afford to eat ‘good food’, but good food can also be cheap food if people understand better the nutritional values of the common items they routinely access. For instance, the green leaves of beetroots or carrots are invariably discarded, when they are literally packed with goodness. A handful of pumpkin leaves – never usually used – can add valuable calcium and other minerals to a meal. In the north, drumstick (Moringa oleifera) trees are never harvested, because no one ever eats this vegetable here, while it is deeply valued in the south and west,” says Dr Mathai.

Dr M.S. Bamji, who was once a scientist with the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad and now works for the Dangoria Charitable Trust in the same city, puts it this way, “Indian diets, especially of the poor, are generally deficient in micronutrients.”

To explore ways to address this, Dr Bamji, along with, P.V.V.S. Murty, of the same trust, M. Vishnuvardhan Rao of the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, and G. Satyanarayana of ANGR Agriculture University, Hyderabad, undertook a study in 2010, entitled ‘Diversification from Agriculture to Nutritionally and Environmentally Promotive Horticulture in a Dry-land Area’, involving 222 small and marginal farmers with an average holding of two to three acres in Andhra Pradesh’s Medak district. Bamji delineates the approach, “We asked these farmers, who cultivated mostly rice and sugar cane, to put aside a quarter of an acre of their land for a vegetable and fruit patch. We provided seeds and encouraged them to cultivate drumstick trees, curry leaf bushes, papayas apart from vegetables like creeper spinach (Basilla alba) and lentils using organic methods of farming.”

At the end of this exercise, it was found that about a quarter to half the vegetables grown in these plots were sold in the market, and the rest was consumed at home. It was also found that while the families who maintained these kitchen gardens were perhaps not eating more vegetables than they had earlier, they were at least consuming the same amounts, while other families in the region had cut down on their consumption of vegetables because they had become prohibitively expensive in the market. “We concluded from this that homestead gardening can indeed have a positive impact on the consumption of nutritious vegetables, legumes and fruits, but to be sustainable it would need to be supplemented with additional income generating activities, because for poor and marginal farmers, income security rather than nutritional security was the priority,” says Bamji.

It is now well-established that adequate nutrition is dependent on what have come to be termed as the three crucial ‘A’s: Availability, or sufficient supplies of food; Accessibility, or the capacity of people to get or buy food; and Absorbability, or the capacity of the body to actually benefit from this food, a process that is often disrupted by recurring illnesses. Crucial insights, from studies such as Bamji’s, that call for a better understanding of the nutritive value of foods, which are relatively inexpensive and locally available should go towards informing policy.

At a time when the nutritional profile of India’s poor, especially children, has rung alarm bells in the corridors of power, we need to re-capture that old urgency, commitment to and vision for nutritional security – not just food security – for all, that experts like Dr Gopalan had displayed over half a century ago.

(Women's Feature Service)

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