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Malnutrition in East Timor Calls for Action

The Australian owners of a restaurant in East Timor are hoping to use their passion for the local cuisine to combat malnutrition in the tiny Southeast Asian nation.

The Australian owners of a restaurant in East Timor are hoping to use their passion for the local cuisine to combat malnutrition in the tiny Southeast Asian nation.

East Timor has Asia’s worst rates of child malnutrition, with more than 50 percent of children suffering from stunting – a condition that permanently affects their mental and physical development – according to the United Nations.

But this is not primarily due to a shortage of food – instead, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF blames a lack of education and knowledge about local foods.

Development worker turned restaurateur Mark Notaras said traditional dishes like batar da’an – a kind of corn stew served at his Agora Food Studio restaurant in the capital Dili – were looked down on as “poor people’s food.”

“If you came to visit Timor, you could eat at 150 restaurants and never find it on a menu,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Representational image showing a malnutrition ridden child.

Notaras and his wife, Alva Lim, launched the non-profit Timor-Leste Food Innovators Exchange (TLFIX) last year to educate people across the country about cooking with healthy and local ingredients.

They hope to persuade them to supplement diets of white rice and instant noodles – which provide cheap calories but little nutrition – with the indigenous plants that grow there.

“We encourage people to eat a wider array of foods they already have around them in order to improve their nutrition,” said Notaras.

UNICEF already trains mothers in East Timor to provide more nutritious meals, showing them how to incorporate locally grown carrots and leafy greens into the rice that children are traditionally fed.

Lim and Notaras take a more innovative approach. (VOA)

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