Vegetables-go-to-School Program: Why India needs school garden projects to reverse malnutrition

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By Prachi Mishra

The United Nations has recognized malnutrition as one of the world’s most serious but least addressed health problems. In Southeast Asia, malnutrition continues to remain a leading cause of child deaths and lower learning outcomes in children.

Some significant measures have been taken to address the issue, and ‘Vegetables-go-to-School’ is one such project undertaken to grapple with malnutrition, especially among children. This project has introduced comprehensive school vegetable garden programs in selected countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Burkina Faso, and Indonesia.

What is ‘Vegetables-go-to School’ program?

Under this project, school gardens are constructed and students are taught the importance of nutrition and balanced diet. They are also familiarized with the necessity of sanitation and healthy life- style.

The agenda behind creating school gardens is to help children in achieving better understanding of biological processes, sustainable agricultural practices, and raising environmental awareness. It also provides better information about healthy food choices, encouraging the intake of diversified diets and ensuring water supply, sanitation and hygiene. Further, it also helps to reduce the cost of food. It provides a safety net to poor people by giving them the ability to grow their own food.

The project doesn’t only target school children, but also school administrators, teachers, and parents. It encourages them to build private vegetable gardens at their homes.

The potential of school gardens in coping with malnutrition

School is one of the best places to implement good health programs to achieve far- reaching changes in the society.

Moreover, if the children inculcate healthy habits at a young age, it’s more likely that they would retain them throughout their life.

 If each student is able to learn sustainable agriculture practices, they could reach out to the farmers and help them in implementing such practices in farming.

The school gardens would not only improve the health sector but would also boost the economy of a country.

 Some earlier school garden projects

‘Vegetables-go-to-School’ is not a new concept. In 1957, Food and Agriculture Organisation started a joint venture with UNICEF, called the “Applied Nutrition Program,” which aimed at better nutrition through school and community gardens which were sometimes combined with a small livestock and/or fish pond component (FAO 1966).

This program was mostly successful, but had certain drawbacks caused by the poor planning and mismanagement done on the part of authorities.

Similar initiatives were taken in Negros Occidental province in 1984 during a national economic crisis, which displaced 250,000 sugar workers and almost 25 children died every month from malnutrition. To cope with the situation, home gardens for cultivation were developed and widely promoted to produce adequate vegetables for the families. Reportedly, within two years of introducing the program, the rate of malnutrition in the province dropped from 40 per cent to 25 per cent.

In the United Kingdom ‘Feed Me Better’ campaign brought educational improvements in students as it shifted school meals away from low-budget processed foods towards healthier options with more fruit and vegetables.

Does India need school gardens?

One of the major causes for the increasing cases of malnutrition in India is poverty and lack of adequate food. However, malnutrition can exist even where the food supply is adequate.

Such cases of malnutrition are prominent among the affluent families who get sufficient amount of food but their diets may be excessively deficient in one or more nutrients.

According to World Health Organisation, in India close to 1.3 million children die every year because of malnutrition. Several policies and measures have been initiated to curb malnutrition. However it still persists, affecting large number of children.

Introducing the concept of school gardens in India can help in tackling malnutrition to a great extent. In rural areas, such gardens can provide cheap and sufficient vegetables that can be utilized for mid-day meals for the children.

In cities where people have moved away from farming, school gardens can take back the children to the traditional methods of growing vegetables. With children’s nutrition under assault by fast food and junk, school gardens can offer opportunity for an outdoor activity while also teaching them the importance of nutrients-rich diet.

Most importantly, school gardens give a first-hand experience with nature, which seems to have receded in the present age of technology.

A few years back, the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), Andhra Pradesh State Cell, initiated a project ‘Student Amateurs in School Yard Agriculture (SASYA)’ in the Medak district of Andhra Pradesh to provide chemical-free, nutrient-rich vegetables to the children.

This project benefited the students through experiential learning and also established strong relationships between the school and the community.

What’s the future of these programs?

Despite the fact that the school garden projects have been implemented for a long time, it won’t be erroneous to say that most of these remain low- profile. A majority of people won’t have even a little knowledge about their existence.

An increase in the availability, affordability and consumption of nutrient-rich food is one way by which malnutrition may be substantially reversed. However other than implementation of such programs, it is utmost important to collect the data in a refined manner and increase awareness about them across the globe.