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Affordable Nutrition for Toddlers
When my colleague Scott Bleggi and I arrived in Chaumala, a village outside the city of Dhangadhi in western Nepal, a young woman was already tending the fire, ensuring that it would be hot enough to cook potato/seasonal green vegetable cutlets, the focus of today's presentation. The theme: "making traditional snacks more nutritious."
About 25 women, some nursing babies and others keeping a close eye on toddlers, sat around the fire. A little girl just shy of school age cradled a sleeping infant, one small hand keeping flies away from his face with a practiced economy of motion. Several women were preparing the food: forming the potato/vegetable mixture into patties, mixing an egg-based batter to cook them in, and slicing sweet potatoes to go with the cutlets. The snack is a more nutritious but nonetheless inexpensive alternative to plain fried potatoes, a dish all these women prepare regularly at home.
This gathering was made possible by U.S. development assistance -- more specifically, the Action Against Malnutrition through Agriculture (AAMA) project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
AAMA has several components in addition to nutrition education. Two in particular show why development assistance programs like this one are effective and deserve champions among U.S. decision makers: a poultry-raising project, and a "governance" initiative to ensure that communities can continue with project activities once donor funding ends.
Training in poultry management is what makes it feasible to include eggs -- a good source of protein -- in the diets of children ages 6 to 24 months, even those from families of modest means. This age group must be included in any effective effort to prevent malnutrition, since it's common for children's growth to falter at this time -- with grim and lasting consequences. Breast milk, while still important, can no longer provide all the nutrients older babies need; they also need the right kinds and amounts of what nutritionists call "complementary" foods. The stakes are high: malnutrition before the second birthday causes largely irreversible damage to physical and cognitive development, and, in turn, to educational achievement and even lifetime earnings.
It's therefore very important for parents to know what children this age should be eating. But it is not enough: a means of growing or purchasing these foods is essential, of course, if children are actually going to eat them. Once a woman in the AAMA program receives training in how to keep poultry healthy, she is given a gift of five laying hens to get her started. Eggs are a renewable resource that can also be shared -- for example, by coating other foods in egg-enriched batter.
AAMA is a five-year program; 2012 is the last year it will receive financial support from USAID. The country staff of Helen Keller International and other organizations that have carried out the program -- nearly all of whom are themselves Nepali -- have been working over the life of AAMA to ensure that it can continue without outside funds. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this; today, in fact, most U.S.-funded development programs include specific plans for "sustainability." In AAMA's case, efforts include training trainers who can continue to disseminate knowledge and skills; approaching village- and district-level councils to allocate at least modest resources to continue a program that has proven to be so effective; and encouraging successful poultry farmers to give one or more chicks to another woman in the community.
Scott and I each tried a cutlet once they were ready and found them appetizing. Fortunately, despite toddlers' general reputation as notoriously picky eaters, the young children in Chaumala's AAMA group seemed to agree.
Michele Learner is associate editor for Bread for the World Institute.
Photo caption: In western Nepal, women demonstrate how to cook an affordable, nutritious snack that will appeal to young children. Photo by Michele Learner for Bread for the World Institute.
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