Boitalu and other backyard bounties Society

Ever tried lal saag with bhindi? It’s super healthy

Women in Dhepaguda village in their vegetable gardens

Women in Dhepaguda village in their vegetable gardens   | Photo Credit: Anuradha Sengupta

It’s early morning in Jamiakupakhal village in Kashipur, Odisha. As the sun crests the hills, a group of women go out to gather vegetables for lunch. They walk to a small patch of land, about five minutes from their homes, with a row of immaculately raised vegetable beds.

It is almost the end of summer and the hills look brown and dry. But the beds are sprouting all colours—muted orange of pumpkin flowers, tender green of ridge gourds, dark green of bitter gourds and bhindi, different shades of saag, maroon of amaranth, and purple of brinjals.

The lunch in the village will consist of these vegetables and grains stored from the winter harvest. The women discuss what they will cook as they work. “Yesterday I had made boitalu (pumpkin), bhindi, and puin saag (basella) for lunch,” says Kajol Dey Majhi.

“Have you tried lal saag with bhindi? It tastes really good,” says Saroj Majhi. “Try boitalu patra (pumpkin leaf) with some rice khudo (broken rice), and bhindi,” suggests another. The garden is one of several raised by villagers this year, for a supply of vegetables during summer when water sources dry up.

The produce also adds a vital dose of nutrition to their plates. The nearest market from Jamiakupakhal is a weekly haat, about 8 kilometres from the village, a two-hour walk. At the market, they would have to spend ₹40 to ₹50 a week per family.

Farm to kitchen

Majhi’s family is one of the 1,16,000 households from 2,145 villages in southern Odisha’s Rayagada and Kalahandi districts that has benefited from ‘Food and Agro-Ecological Approaches to Reduce Malnutrition’ or FAARM, an initiative to improve the nutritional status of women and children.

Implemented by a non-profit called Living Farms, with support from Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, the programme aims to make panchayats nutrition sensitive, increase dietary diversity, promote local food systems and improve women’s control over food to reduce stunting among children in these communities. Many of these hamlets can only be reached by foot.

Now Jamiakupakhal’s gardens grow 13 different vegetables. “In the summer, we did not get that many vegetables from our jungles and farms. Now our gardens are growing so much that we share them with people who don’t have any. We eat three to four vegetables with any meal,” says 70-year-old Panumati Majhi.

“We can just walk down, any time of the day, and pick up vegetables. We are not spending any money, and our produce is far tastier than what you find in the market. Plus, it does not have pesticides.” And most pertinently, areas like Kashipur that are dry get a supply of vegetables 11 months a year.

Three factors are kept in mind while choosing vegetables—nutritional qualities, local soil conditions, and those varieties that produce seeds that can be reused so that farmers don’t have to buy them from the market.

FAARM works in close collaboration with frontline workers and block level officials from the departments of Women and Child Development, Health, Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment and the Odisha Livelihood Mission.

Shared knowledge

Adivasi diets earlier were highly nutritious, with wild forest foods and multiple crops grown with shared knowledge. The crops they grew were resilient to climatic stress and the forest foods were seasonal. But the introduction of chemical-intensive agriculture changed diets and also people’s control over production.

In Jalanidhi village, 14-year-old Rajesh Palka has helped build gardens on his grandfather’s land, and is now helping others grow vegetables.

“He hovers around the garden whenever he has time—before going to school in the morning, after coming home in the afternoon,” his grandfather laughs. “Come back in 45 days and you can eat the first harvest from our garden,” he invites me.

Grow, compost and mulch

FAARM has reached out to children as well—with nutrition gardens in schools and angwanwadis. The garden in Jalanishi’s anganwadi is thanks to Rajesh and his friends, Lingraj and Saroj Kr Patra, little sister Aruna, and her friend Suchitra.

A schoolgirl learns the basics of gardening in Jalanidhi

A schoolgirl learns the basics of gardening in Jalanidhi   | Photo Credit: Anuradha Sengupta

“We had a child in the red zone (severe acute malnutrition) here,” says anganwadi worker Sukesh Nirantha. “The garden will be good, we can feed the children nutritious, chemical-free food.” The 30 children in this anganwadi get a morning meal and lunch here everyday. In the local school, children are learning not only to grow their own food, but to compost and mulch.

“Some of our children come from interior areas where malnutrition is high,” says headmistress Joylaxmi Mithika. “It will be good if they can go back home and practice what they have learnt.”

The freelance journalist focusses on issues affecting women, youth, environment and urban subcultures.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2020 6:08:08 PM |

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