Re: Nutrition-enhancing agriculture and food systems

Peter Steele Independent Consultant Agricultural Engineer, Italy
Peter Steele

Value of educating school kids

Partnerships with schools

‘Nutrition-enhancing agriculture & food systems’ is a powerful and demanding topic – coming mid-year with the holiday period upon us it’s little wonder perhaps that there have been so few correspondents. Those of us in the northern hemisphere would rather be outside enjoying the sun in the mountains or away for a day at the beach. For all that, there is a deal to be shared and much to be gained from dipping into the portfolio of excellent material already available.

My contribution then pitches in favour of ‘partnerships’ and, apart from that of parent to sibling, just about the most profound platform of all human learning is that of teacher to student. This thing about ‘Give me the child and I’ll give you the man’ (which, according to my brief search on Google, is generally attributed to the Catholic Jesuits Order which, in turn, took it from the teachings of St Francis Xavier).

The point being then is that those strong linkages between food and agriculture and all that this means for encouraging the development of community well-being, strong social responsibilities, understanding of how to eat good foods, lead healthy lives, etc. comes from teaching people when they are at their most responsive phase of development; young, receptive, outward looking and keen to learn and to position themselves in the world around them.

Value of education

Sure, children learn from the moment they are born – and depend upon a handful of people in the family (and the wider community) who have the time, interest and, importantly, the education to make a difference. Teachers are typically at the forefront of change. To some extent this is already covered – both directly and obliquely in the Core Background papers provided for the debate. This assumes that people have sufficient time to explore this bibliography of information and contacts. Mine was a quick over-view but I draw the attention of the debate to the paper by Judiann McNulty ‘Challenges & Issues of Nutrition Education’ published by FAO in 2013. It extends an earlier FAO concept note on nutrition with additional information provided by a review of recently published information.

Read the summary and collect the bibliography for further reference but, in essence, the author highlights the advantages of investing in the education of school kids, the value of school gardens as a practical means of making change and, equally important, the messages that the kids take home to the parents for choice of foods, understanding of nutrition, and the way in which changes can be encouraged from generation to generation.

Reflect back on a life-time spent in the ‘development industries’ and you’ll see the logic of this kind of investment; it’s commonsense really, but how often is the local school struggling for ideas and resources with over-worked staff and an under-funded institutional structure. There is only so much that you can do. An easy starting-point, however, is access to material published by others.

Ethiopian experience

Working in support of a food security project in Ethiopia a short-time back we provided technical inputs, ideas and small funds to estimated 90,000 rural people living around Mekelle Town and in the Northern Shoa, respectively, in the north and centre of the country. Where possible school gardens featured as a means of encouraging change to local diets that are based largely upon livestock products, wild and cultivated green plants and bread made from the Ethiopian staple teff (which looks like what it is – grass seed).  Whole grain teff is a particularly valuable food - high in protein, carbohydrates and fibre. It also has a good amino acid profile including all eight essential amino acids, which means protein content is high quality. Teff is rich in calcium and iron. There is no sugar content. But what you don’t get locally are interesting foods – you imagine eating the local fermented bread – injera two or three times a day (if you’re fortunate). Teff production and preparation as food is also demanding of land, people and fuel (with all those down-stream ramifications for access to resources, smoke-filled kitchens, etc.).

Establish a vegetable garden and grow a range of temperate and semi-temperate food crops – leafy (cabbages, lettuces, Swiss chard, etc.), roots (potatoes, turnips, carrots, etc.), fleshy (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) and legumes (beans, peas, etc.) and you can transform the dietary landscape. Much of what can be grown does not need to be eaten cooked. Walking the hills of a late evening and making our way back to the Land Cruiser after a 10 km circuit, people would thrust handfuls of burnt grain and bunches of carrots at you and, with a smile, say ‘ to sustain you on the road’. The pleasure was mutual – givers giving from relatively limited resources and takers enjoying the rewards of snack foods, but also seeing those new ideas that had become reality over a few years.

Value of information

This is the school kids transferring their ideas home. However, modifying the curriculum in the school to provide for this change can be more demanding. Judiann McNulty’s bibliography lists texts that show you how to approach this challenge; of which a couple of references are worth highlighting. In Ethiopia we used:

FAO. (2005). Setting up and running a school garden: manual for teachers, parents & communities. ISBN 978-92s-5-105408-6. FAO, Rome, Italy.  (Check out part 6What shall we grow to eat – improving nutrition’; information like this is gold dust.)

FAO. (2005). Nutrition education in primary schools: planning guide for curriculum development. Vol. 1 ‘Reader’ & vol. 2. ‘Activities’.  FAO, Rome. Italy. (Comes with five rather complicated wall charts and language is challenging, but that’s where teachers come in handy.)

We also used:

FAO, (2001). Improved nutrition through home gardening: training package for preparing field workers in Africa’. FAO, Rome, Italy (And there is a similar version targeting ‘… field workers in SE Asia’.)

You can source and download these documents free-of-charge at Type the title into the search engine provided.


Today’s school kids represent the next generation in your community; it makes sense to invest in their education by providing an understanding of good eating practices based upon choice of crops and livestock. There is a deal of readily available information with which to help you make the changes required.

Value of trees to nutrition

The point made by your Indian correspondent Subhash Mehta is relevant where, as he says focus upon investment in women and young people in the community helps provide for sustainability with all the implications therein for livelihoods, employment, etc. leading to improved security for both food nutrition and food security. The Ethiopian communities with whom we supported vegetable gardening were living in high desolate hill country – bleak and cold in the winter rains – and devoid of tree cover. Remnants of the indigenous forests that once covered the north-central country remain around the rural churches and similar orthodox institutions (and form the basis for seed harvesting, nurseries, etc.) but elsewhere rural communities fall back on livestock manure as fuel – further impoverishing already poor soils – whilst waiting for their homestead eucalyptus plantations to start producing.

The messages are simply and easy to understand (but far more difficult to implement) that trees are essential for human life.

Value of humour

And a brief aside highlighting the downside of the debate, but one that can only bring a dubious smile to readers; the contribution made by Robert Best of Trinidad & Tobago. Whether this 30 year old record for consumption of fried chicken, fries and Coke in Port of Spain is really true or not – it is the image that this projects in the mind’s eye.

Perhaps this a nutritional phase that all countries have to explore (and endure) as they develop? Mexico has recently over-taken the US as the ‘world’s fattest country’ (again, according to my Google search) with those international fast food companies and their national ‘look-a-likes’ targeting the enthusiastic Hispanic consumer across the American continent.

Happy eating everyone.

Peter Steele
Agricultural Engineer