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Feasting on vegetables in a non-vegetarian community: experiences from Tanzania

Learning by doing: male participation is key to the nutritional wellbeing of the familyIsaack Kitururu, Victor Kamagenge and Dr. Christina Nyhus Dhillon

Issack Kitururu is working for Helen Keller and has over 5 years experience in designing and implementing social marketing and behaviour change programmes on maternal and child health, nutrition, HIV/ AIDS and sanitation and hygiene.

Victor Kamagenge worked for Helen Keller International as Project Coordinator for the Enhanced Homestead Food Production Project (EHFP). He has over 18 years implementing development programmes.

Dr. Christina Nyhus Dhillon has over 15 years in international development living and working in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. She is currently HKI Tanzania’s Deputy Country Director.

“I did not know that it was possible to have an event which gathers over 300 people and let them eat without having beef, chicken or fish! Now I know, and believe, that it is possible to have an event with only vegetables to serve, if they are well prepared.” (Alex Ramadhan, Community Development Officer, Sengerema District)

Cooking and consuming vegetables is not a common practice for most households in the Lake Zone of Tanzania. Households that do cook vegetables typically overcook them, destroying the taste, appearance and many essential micronutrients (such as vitamins A, Bs and C). This often deters family members, especially children, from eating these micronutrient-packed foods. Realizing this, Helen Keller International’s Enhanced Homestead Food Production (EHFP) project, initiated community events where programme beneficiaries have a chance to learn techniques and gain skills and support for vegetable cultivation and preparation that best preserves and maintains nutritional value, colour and flavor.

EHFP is a three year (2011–2014) agriculture-nutrition project being implemented in 12 villages in two districts of the Tanzanian Lake Zone and directly reaches 1,200 households with child under the age of two years. The project aims to improve maternal and child health and nutritional status through increased access and consumption of micronutrient-rich foods (including indigenous vegetables) and promotion of optimal practices in maternal nutrition and infant and young child feeding (IYCF) following the application of the Essential Nutrition Actions (ENA) framework.

Working with and through local government structures, the project has provided nearly all target beneficiaries with agricultural inputs and horticulture trainings. This exposure to agronomy practices coupled with regular support from government agricultural extension officers has not only increased overall vegetable production, but has also improved beneficiaries’ understanding of the benefits of consuming vegetables. This is evident from the mid-term evaluation where 93% of participants agreed (32% ‘strongly agreed’) that as vegetables provide essential nutrients for healthy eyes and protects against diseases, they should be part of every meal, for children in particular.

Appropriate vegetable preparation; however, remained a challenge to many. From April 2012 to February 2013, reports from community educators conducting outreach visits consistently showed over 75% of the beneficiaries reached had very limited skills on appropriate vegetable preparation. To address the knowledge and skills gap, in June 2012, EHFP added a behaviour change communication (BCC) activity to the project. Three events were organised of which two focused on basic vegetable preparation principles1 and gave participants the chance to practice new techniques in small groups under the guidance of the EHFP team. Participants brought fresh vegetables2 (from their new home gardens) and the project supplied rice, cooking oil, salt and maize flour.

In one of these events, more than 150 project beneficiaries (about 25% men, representing their spouses) and a total of 300 community members came from six participating villages. After the event, one-on-one and small group informal discussions were held by the project team and feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive.

One beneficiary said

”we are growing varieties of vegetable but we were not using them, now we are going to start following these principles at our homes.”

One participant said,

“Now I can confidently help my spouse to prepare vegetable and will make sure that every meal we have has at least one variety of vegetable. Also with these notes I have recorded, I will easily assist her whenever she forgets the recipe and make sure that our family consumes well-prepared vegetables.”

The intention of sharing the gained knowledge and skills was evident as participants, mostly men, used notebooks to write down the procedures and recipes.

Apart from this event, other BCC approaches that have been used include inter-personal counseling sessions conducted by trained community counselors through home visits and small group discussion. The behaviours addressed include low consumption of vegetables due to prevailing perceptions (e.g. vegetables are for poor people who cannot afford fish), exclusive breastfeeding and breastfeeding within one hour of birth, consistency of early food during complementary feeding and observing routine chicken vaccination.

The project has over 70 volunteers who provide nutritionrelated counseling to beneficiaries and are technically supported by trained health facility workers and district nutrition focal persons who are all government employees, as well as the project staff. Field visits allow the project team to provide supportive supervision to the grassroots implementers (agriculture extension officers and community counsellors).

Through these visits, the team is able to routinely gauge the extent to which beneficiaries practice the knowledge and skills acquired. The team has observed improvements at household level in the availability of and demand for vegetables as well as appropriate preparation techniques.

The mid-term report indicates that nearly half of beneficiaries consumed vegetables from the home gardens. However, project learning has shown that a greater availability of vegetables in the community does not translate directly into increased consumption. Food preparers (such as mothers, fathers, older children, grandmothers) need proper orientation on cooking with vegetables to ensure that not only vegetables are consumed and enjoyed, but that their micronutrient value is retained to the best extent possible.

Improving maternal and child nutrition presents multiple challenges and barriers. Improving the consumption of locally-grown, micronutrient-rich vegetables is a starting point for sustainable long term reduction of micronutrient malnutrition in these vulnerable populations.

Show footnotes

1including shortened cooking time for the desired tenderness, use of appropriate and easily available ingredients, the use of sharp knifes (to cut vegetables cleanly instead of bruising them), and the addition of lime juice to improve the micronutrient absorption of home grown vegetables

2such as ethiopian mustard (loshuu), soya beans (soya), cowpeas (kunde), amaranth leaves (mchicha), carrots (karoti), orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (viazi lishe) and nightshade (mnavu)

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Isaack Kitururu, Victor Kamagenge and Dr. Christina Nyhus Dhillon (2014). Feasting on vegetables in a non-vegetarian community: experiences from Tanzania. Nutrition Exchange 4, July 2014. p23. www.ennonline.net/nex/4/en/feasting

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