How would you explain malnutrition and undernourishment in a farmer household? Take this cluster of 556 households in five villages in the Wardha region of Vidarbha district of Maharashtra and the 658 households of seven villages in the Koraput district of Odisha, for instance. The year was 2014. In both areas, over 45% of children under age five were underweight, 35% were stunted and about 27% wasted. 33% of children had Vitamin A deficiency. In both the locations, more women (47%) had Chronic Energy Deficiency (CED) than men.
In both Wardha and Koraput, about 55-60% of pregnant women and 75% of lactating women were anaemic. In short, a grim scenario of severe and widespread malnutrition, as per this data collected by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in 2014. One of the glaring cropping anomalies was that, in both locations, the farmers weren’t growing nutritious food for their daily needs, and simply focused on cultivation for profits.
The way MSSRF saw it, the solution was obvious. For farming households to have nutritious food on their plates every day, all that’s needed is a tweaking of the agricultural practices. And they opted for a farmer-led strategy. What could make a direct and immediate impact on the farming family’s nutritional status is what’s grown and how it’s grown. While tuber crops like sweet potato were being grown in Koraput, the white flesh traditional varieties contain no pro-vitamin.
Intercropping with pigeon pea in Koraput and with cotton in Wardha let farmers harvest both from the same field, besides getting the field fertilized through biological nitrogen fixation by the pigeon pea plant. Households that had a backyard were encouraged to grow nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits (206 in Koraput and 246 in Wardha). They shared green leafy vegetables to combat anaemia and coloured vegetables like carrot and red pumpkin to prevent vitamin A deficiency. In the case of landless farmhand families, especially in Wardha, MSSRF encouraged and helped women in these farmer households to set up community gardens on Panchayat lands and in local schools.
And fired by all this nutritional awareness, many of these village men and women have become ‘community hunger fighters’. Trained at the village level, they now spread the message of nutrition, one conversation at a time.
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