Fighting malnutrition with veggies

“Food is literally the most important thing in the world. It is not even next to life, because it is life itself. Deprived of the right to food, man knows no other. For the hungry, there is no dignity, no human rights, no rule of law, no liberty, no celebration of the spirit… the most crucial task before world community today is to assure that enough food is available at the right place, at the right time, and at the right price”. – Arturo R. Tanco, Jr., former president of World Food Council

It’s the paradox of our times. While the economy of the Philippines is supposedly booming, the malnutrition problem is not getting better – in fact, it is getting worse!

When a person is not getting enough food or not getting the right sort of food, malnutrition is just around the corner. “Even if people get enough to eat, they will become malnourished if the food they eat does not provide the proper amounts of micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – to meet daily nutritional requirements,” the UN World Food Program points out.

In the Philippines, malnutrition generally affects children. Most of them suffer from what experts called as chronic malnutrition, or stunting rate for children under 5 years old. Children who suffer from chronic malnutrition fail to grow to their full genetic potential, both mentally and physically.

Based on a survey conducted by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) and released in 2015, chronic malnutrition is at its worst in 10 years and this may get worse unless necessary steps are soon taken.

The data showed chronic malnutrition rate among children aged 0 to 2 was at 26.2%, the highest in 10 years. From 2013 to 2015, 10% of the stunting children increased to an average of 40%, and is expected to increase in the coming years.

In its 2013 report, entitled “Cost of Hunger: Philippines,” the Save the Children Philippines said the country lost almost ₱328 billion or 30% of that year’s gross domestic product due to malnutrition.

“If stunting rates continue to rise, it would be difficult for families to break free from poverty,” Ned Olney, the country’s director for the said non-government organization, was quoted as saying. “It is the poor and neglected sectors of society that carry the burden of stunting.”

But there are also children who may not be affected by stunting but they lack getting essential vitamins and minerals required in small amounts by the body for proper growth and development. These children suffer from micronutrient malnutrition.

The FNRI, a line agency of the Department of Science and Technology, said that two out of ten schoolchildren suffer from iron deficiency anemia, and the incident rises with age. Also, one out of ten from the same group is Vitamin A deficient. In addition, two out of ten children are zinc deficient.

But children are not the only ones who will experience malnutrition as population continues to grow. In 1980, the Philippines was home to 48 million Filipinos. In 2000, the number swelled to 78 million. Today, there are more than 100 million people inhabiting the country.

Some years back, the Philippines was listed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as one of the 13 low-income food-deficit countries in Asia (“those that do not have enough food to feed their populations and for the most part lack the financial resources to pay for imports”).

The other twelve countries — most of them thickly populated — were Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

“In many developing countries, rapid population growth makes it difficult for agricultural production to keep pace with the rising demand for food,” wrote Don Hinrichsen in a report published by Population Reports. “Most developing countries already are cultivating virtually all arable land and are bringing more marginal land under cultivation.”

Jacques Diouf, at the time when he was the director-general of FAO, echoed the same concern. “Population growth continues to outstrip food availability in many countries,” he pointed out during the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome.

Hunger is the world’s “most solvable problem,” declared the UN World Food Program. But in the Philippines, hunger persists across the country. But while the situation has improved, it has remains “serious,” according to the International Food Policy Research Institute said. In fact, the Philippines’ Global Hunger Index score of 13.2 ranks 28th worldwide.

It is very disturbing, indeed. Carin van der Hor, Country Director of Plan International, observed that malnutrition among Filipino children below the age of five has changed very little over the past 10 years. “The reduction of child malnutrition has been alarmingly slow,” Hor said.

In Bansalan, Davao del Sur, a non-government organization has been in the forefront in its fight against malnutrition and hunger. “We want people to know the importance of consuming vegetables to protect them from malnutrition,” explained Roy C. Alimoane, the director of Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc.

MBRLC is a religious institution and its former director, Harold R. Watson, was a recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1985 for peace and international understanding. The center believes that through FAITH, malnutrition can be solved right in the homeyard.

Actually, FAITH stands for “Food Always In The Home,” a vegetable gardening technology. The center has been promoting it since the 1970s. “With minimum capital and lots of native enterprise, a family can be assured of a steady supply of nutritious food – and even extra income,” Alimoane says.

While vegetables can easily be grown in the Philippines, Filipinos surprisingly do not grow enough of them. “The average per capita consumption of 12.4 kilograms of green and yellow vegetables is far short of the recommended allowance of 32.4 kilograms per year,” wrote Generosa T. Medrena in an article published in “The PCARRD Monitor.”

To think, vegetable gardening is a worthwhile endeavor and economically feasible. “Home gardening,” noted Enriqueta B. Torres in “Research at Los Banos,” “can reduce by about

20% a family’s total daily food expenditures. Considering the high cost of vegetables and the rate of malnutrition in the country today, home gardening should be taken seriously by families with low income and whose members are nutritionally at risk.”

The FAITH gardening does not only provide food, but can also reduce a farm family’s heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides which are not only expensive but also pose health and environmental hazards.

“FAITH is a type of vegetable gardening that can provide the necessary protein, vitamins and mineral requirements needed by a family with 6 members,” Alimoane points out. “We designed it in such a way that it requires minimum labor.”

As the name suggests, there will be vegetables – and some fruits – all throughout the year if its recommended plan is properly followed. Based on a study, the garden can provide 300 grams (or one bowl) of fresh vegetables daily.

The recommended FAITH garden size is 6×16 meters.

The most fertile area in the backyard should be selected for this type of garden. The area should contain humus, a form of plant food. The types of soil needed for vegetable gardening are loam, silt-loam, or clay loam.

“Establish the garden on a light slope to provide drainage, especially during rainy season,” Alimoane suggests. “If the area is flat, dig drainage channels or ditches around the planting site. The garden site must also receive sunshine throughout the day as growing plants need sunshine to manufacture food.”

In addition, the garden site should be located near water sources. “Water is very important particularly during the dry season,” Alimoane adds. “During rainy season, however, canals must be built to drain the water out from the garden plots.”

The garden is divided equally into 3 sections, with half of each section held in reserve for replanting. One section is planted with short-term vegetables that will be ready for use in two to 4 months such as soybeans, tomatoes, pechay (bok choy), cowpeas, bush sitao (string beans), radish, and sweet corn.

The second section is for crops which can produce vegetables for 6 to 9 months such as ampalaya (bitter gourd), okra, onions, garlic, eggplant, winged beans, golden squash, alugbati (vine spinach), and ginger. Vegetables that will produce for 11 to 12 months are grown on the third section like patani (lima beans), kulitis, sayote, kangkong, sweet potato, taro, and kadios.

Along the boundary of the garden and in the year, permanent and semi-permanent crops are grown. Among these are malunggay, papaya, pineapple, calamansi, and guava.

For fencing purposes, nitrogen-fixing species like Flemingia macrophylla, Desmodium rensonii, Gliricidia sepium(kakawate), and Indigofera anil are planted; these can also be used as sources of green manure.

The central feature in FAITH gardening is basket composts, a series of raised garden beds set with bamboo baskets, about one foot in diameter and depth.

The baskets are filled with little animal manure (particularly goat manure) and some decomposed organic garbage and packed with leaves of leguminous trees and shrubs. If basket composts are too laborious to do, you can also make trench composts.

If manure is not available, the leaves of leguminous trees and shrubs (flemingia, rensonii, kakawate and/or indigofera) will do. These are stuffed into the basket or trench composts to provide nitrogen and other nutrients needed by growing crops.

“You can immediately use the composts without waiting for the usual 3- to 4-month period as is necessary in the old method of composting,” Alimoane says.

However, the time to plant seeds or seedlings around the basket or trench composts depends on the state of decomposition of materials inside the compost. “If the materials at the bottom part are nearly decomposed, seeds and/or seedlings can be planted immediately,” says Alimoane. “But if most of the materials are still fresh, planting may be done two to 3 weeks later.”

Like most gardening, good management is necessary. The reserved areas should be planted in time so that there would be continuous supply of vegetables throughout the year.

Since kamote, alugbati, and kangkong are crawling plants, these should be planted in separate beds one meter wide and 6 meters long with a distance of 50 centimeters between beds. The plants should be set 20 centimeters apart.

For patani and winged beans, two to 3 seeds per hill are planted around the composts. These two legumes are the main providers of proteins. Other plants which are good sources of protein are soybeans, string beans, and bush sitao.

Some crawling vegetables like cucumber, ampalaya, and patola (should be provided with trellis; otherwise the vines will become a problem later on.

“Leafy vegetables are high in iron, calcium, vitamin A, and other minerals,” Alimoane shares.

Now, who says malnutrition can’t be won in the homeyard?