Written by Susanne Courtney, Executive Director of Action Against Hunger Canada.
Edibles are one of the hottest trends in the garden for 2014, as noted by gardening gurus, foodies and wellness experts. The idea of growing your own food, especially ‘super-foods’ touted for their health benefits, is increasingly appealing to Canadians at varying green thumb levels.
But did you know that outside of Canada, nutritional gardens are saving lives? In fact, nutritional gardens can play an important role in food security efforts.
Food security refers to the availability of food and one’s access to it. A household is considered food secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation. Worldwide, it’s estimated that up to 2 billion people lack food security intermittently due to varying degrees of poverty.
A lack of food security can have particularly dire effects on children. Malnutrition is the single greatest threat to child survival. Approximately 3 million children die from hunger-related causes every single year. Put another way, malnutrition contributes to 45% of all child deaths globally.
The good news is, there are solutions. While food security and livelihood programs are complex – taking into consideration things like socio-economics, gender dynamics, geography, and more – simple, practical, community-based solutions can be remarkably effective.
Enter the edible garden.
Nutritional gardens can be a powerful food security tool. As an example, let’s look to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). As an international NGO focused on preventing and treating malnutrition, Action Against Hunger has been expanding our efforts in this vulnerable country in response to increasing needs. Due to civil war, malnutrition in CAR has increased exponentially in recent months. In February, we found that over 7 percent of children screened are suffering from severe acute malnutrition – the kind that kills. It’s considered an emergency when that rate is 2 percent or higher.
In response, Action Against Hunger has implemented additional efforts to treat existing malnutrition and restore food security. These efforts include working with locals on gardens packed with nutritional edibles like lettuces, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, and amaranth.
The edible gardens will be used to nourish the parents of hospitalized children (who often struggle with their own nutritional needs), teach gardening techniques, and support cooking demonstrations, so that parents have the ability to better feed their own families and communities. The gardens provide food diversification and rapid access to nutrients because they grow quickly (for example, the edible leaves of amaranth are available for eating just three weeks after planting).
Action Against Hunger provides the seeds, tools and demonstrations to the community volunteers. After the gardens are well established, community members will continue to manage the gardens themselves.
Scott Logue, one of the Action Against Hunger Canada nutritionists in our Toronto headquarters, provided some tips for gardeners looking to facilitate better community nutrition. Scott recommends adhering to three basic criteria:
1. Plant culturally appropriate food. The crops should be nutritious, but they must also be desirable. If we think local children won’t eat the food or feel uncomfortable doing so for cultural reasons we won’t plant it.
2. Only grow plants that require minimal attention, and which are reliably successful to grow.
3. When possible, plant foods that are both high in energy (macronutrient / calories) as well as nutrient dense (micronutrients). Some good examples are carrots and sweet potatoes. These foods are both easy to cultivate, high in energy, and nutrient dense (high in vitamin A). Another good example is ground nuts (peanuts). They are also easy to cultivate, high in energy and nutrient dense (high in B vitamins).
Following the three above tips will ensure that you get the best nutritional bang for your buck, wherever you’re planting.
Action Against Hunger measures impact of such programs with a timeframe that spans a full food cycle – typically between six and twelve months. Our work is not finished until we complete a final impact evaluation. This follow-up research helps the local community continue its efforts to rebuild and it allows us to refine our methods for future crises.
Although the strategies vary widely, our food security interventions all share a common goal: to fight hunger by preserving and strengthening livelihoods in a sustainable manner.
The edible garden can be a simple but powerful tool to bring a community food, empowerment, and perhaps most of all, hope.