March 15, 2019

Women’s control over food brings nutritional equity in Odisha’s KBK region

Pramila Behera, 27, of Pengdusi village in Thuamul Rampur block of Odisha’s Kalahandi district has started her nutrition garden over two decimal of land beside her house. The small garden offers her the freedom to decide what kind of food items she is going to offer to her husband, daughters and son. 

Though the idea of nutrition garden is quite like a traditional kitchen garden. But, the difference here is that Pramila grows a wide range of vegetables, legumes and leaves in her nutrition garden so that it can give her control over food and fulfil the micronutrient needs of her family.

Here, she grows seasonal as well as all-time crops like radish, carrot, cauliflower, peas, cowpeas, bins, okra, spinach, coriander leaves, brinjal, tomato, onion, variety of edible tubers, gourds and leaves to make it a rich and reliable source of fresh and nutritious food. 

Food freedom 

“Earlier, I couldn’t fulfil the food demands of my children because we had to buy vegetables from the market where prices of tomatoes and other vegetables were too high. We could hardly spend 200-250 rupees a week on vegetables and other food materials. This was not enough to fulfil our food needs,” Pramila said while working in her garden. Looking at her husband who was working beside, Pramila claimed, “We don’t buy vegetables from the market anymore.  My small nutrition garden fulfils this need of my family.”

At least 12 other women of Pengdusi village have raised their own gardens in the backyard and grow more than 15 verities of vegetables and leaves. “This does not only save money spent earlier on buying vegetables from the market at a higher price, but they also get fresh vegetables which is good for health,” Radhamani Nayak, the village Angan Wadi Worker said.

Dibyasini Nayak, 16, is happy with the nutrition garden because she doesn’t have to give up her choice in the food plate. “Earlier we had to take whatever was served by my mother. But, now, I get something – a cucumber or a tomato or a handful of leaves – from the garden raised by my mother to add to my plate,” she said.

In the neighbouring Telguda village, about 25 women have raised similar gardens to fulfil the vegetable needs of their respective families. 

For Padma Naik, 45, of Telguda village, buying food from the market to feed her seven-member-family was really a huge financial burden. “We used to spend over 1500 rupees a month on vegetables and that again was falling short for the family. That’s why we started this. Now, we are free to decide our food menu without depending on the market.”

The idea of nutrition garden is gathering popularity and is being spreading in Kalahandi, Rayagada, Balangir and other districts of Odisha’s poverty stricken region of KBK, an acronym for the area covering undivided Kalahandi, Balangir and Koraput districts, which is now split into eight districts. 

Good food at no investment 

“While vegetables are essential part of our daily diet, buying them from the market is a huge burden for us because we are all poor people. We had to avoid buying many vegetables because we couldn’t afford to get them,” Akshaya Lima of Marathiguda village in Rayagada’s Gudari block said. “I am very happy now as my wife, Nalini, has made us food sufficient by growing over fifteen crops of vegetables and leaves in her small nutrition garden.” 

Study finds that 31 percent of households in the region spend Rs.1000 or less per month on food items whereas 55 percent of households spend between 1000 and 2000 rupees on the same. Their food budget makes 57 percent of total monthly household expenditure of these families.

According to Sweta Banerjee, Kolkata based public health nutritionist working with Welthungerlife, India, who has made studies on nutrition gardens and their role in empowering women and addressing malnutrition in Odisha’s KBK districts, “When you have to buy more essential foods, say vegetables, pulses, egg, fish from the market, you will automatically opt for the vegetable or whatever is cheaper compromising on other things. But, when you have your own vegetables at home, now you have the money to go to the market and buy the egg or something else like fish because the animal protein is very important for the diet,” said.

The reason women show interest in having their own nutrition garden are that it requires no financial investment but some labour during leisure times. They can feed their family and particularly the children with fresh vegetables grown in their own gardens where no chemical pesticide or inorganic fertiliser is used. And, the important thing is that they can save the money spent to buy vegetables from the market where prices go up day by day.

“For nutrition gardens, vegetable seeds are being organised from farmers and distributed among women. There is no use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers, high yielding or hybrid seeds. Inputs to improve soil health are being prepared by using local biomass and disease and pests are being managed with different ecological methods. So no input cost involved in this activity,” said Debjeet Sarangi of the Living Farms, a non-profit that promotes the very idea of nutrition garden in the region with support from Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI) and in collaboration with the Odisha Livelihood Mission (OLM).

The target being to reach out to 7,50,000 households in the entire state and implement the idea to address the issue of chronic malnutrition among tribal population of the State, more than 80,000 household from eight blocks of two malnutrition affected districts, Rayagada and Kalahandi, have started their nutrition gardens. “The objective is to improve nutrition status of pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls and children under five years of age through dietary diversity,” Sarangi emphasised.

A mother of three children, Nalini Lima of Marathiguda village takes pride claiming that she serves safe, nutritious food to her children and husband while fulfilling their demands for specific vegetables and leaves.

“If the woman has no control over what is coming to the kitchen, there is no meaning of dietary balance. But when she has the nutrition garden, she has more control over the food. That gives her a lot of freedom to decide what she needs for the child, adolescent daughter and the family,” Public health nutritionist Sweta Banerjee told. 

Equity-based nutrition security 

According to the dietary guidelines of Hyderabad based National Institute of Nutrition, “Nutrition is a basic prerequisite to sustain life,” and “variety in food is not only the spice of life but also the essence of nutrition and health.”

Dietary diversity being key to improve nutritional intake and achieving nutrition security, “women now do the crop planning so that something and the other is available in the nutrition garden throughout the year because you can’t have a lot of it in one season and nothing in the other. So, nutrition garden consistently contributes towards the micronutrient requirement of these poor people, particularly women and children, who are on the frontline of vulnerability to diseases and issues arising out of malnutrition,” Banerjee highlighted.

Detected undernourished six years back, Alladini Bhanda, 27, and her husband Ashok Bhanda, 34, of Bolangir’s Ratanpur village gave all credit to their nutrition garden for their weight gain from 35 kg and 48 kg to 45 kg and 64 kg respectively. “Until I started the nutrition garden five years back, our daily meal was limited to rice as the staple and only one supporting item. Sometimes, we had to manage with rice and one single vegetable, cooked or roasted,” Alladini told.

“I started my nutrition garden in 2013 with support from Reliance Foundation. Today, I grow several varieties of vegetables in our nutrition garden to feed my children with safe nutritious food so that they don’t have to face any kind of malnutrition induced physical and mental weaknesses.” She added.

Over 2000 such nutrition gardens have been raised by tribal and other poor women in three blocks of Balangir district. “Since they are poor people hit by regular draughts, Reliance foundation, the philanthropic arm of Reliance Industries Ltd, supports them with iron garden nets for fencing and a few gardening tools to start nutrition gardens. The foundation also links women with concerned government departments for necessary farming and nutrition related advices,” Abagyanta Das Naik, Reliance Foundation’s Team Leader for Balangir cluster, said. 

Since it is well fenced and protected, many of us have added banana, lemon and moringa trees to the nutrition gardens to make them further productive,” Mathura Podha, another woman of Ratanpur said.

Promoting best water use practice, the household grey water has been channelled to nutrition gardens to add to the soil moisture and support plant growth.
While the gardens are seen as consistent suppliers of micronutrients to poor and tribal households, they have also promoted equity in distribution of food without any discrimination between male and female members of the family.

“Usually, when it comes to consumption of food in the family, male members always have the prime share. But, now, in families with a nutrition garden, such discrimination is not there,” Basanti Bag, the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) of Telguda village said.

Mother of an adolescent girl, Sitaguru Kadraka of Krushna Patraguda village in Rayagada district said, “There is no point discriminating any one when we have enough food. Secondly, girls must not be undernourished because they are the future mothers. Unless they are healthy and fit how can they, as mothers in future, carry and give birth to healthy babies?” 

Gardens of hope 

In the tribal pockets of Odisha, 51.8 percent of adolescent girls and 30.3 percent of women are under-nourished while 78.4 percent and 77.7 percent of women are anaemic, according to a Unicef nutrition report. As per a baseline survey report of Odisha government’s Women and Child Development Department, 72 percent of tribal children under five years of age in the 15 high burden districts, of which whole of KBK region is a major part, are anaemic. NFHS 4 (2015-16) data confirms high prevalence of stunting, wasting and underweight among under-five children of the tribal populated KBK region.

When the state of nutrition in poverty stricken KBK region and other tribal populated districts is so discouraging, such small nutrition gardens certainly bear great amount of hope in regard to nutrition security of the poor tribal families by improving dietary diversity.

An edited version of this article was published on the VillageSquare.in.

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