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Growing a variety of crops ensures access to different nutrients vital for good health. Above, William Mbewe’s garden of tomatoes, carrots, Maize and spinach on the banks of Lake Kariba in Siavonga. PICTURE: MARGARET CHISANGA

Sustainable diet crucial to fight malnutrition

PUT 32 journalists in one room, and they will inadvertently be raving about their travels and rare escapades. As the discourse turned to descriptions of the landscape and diversity of crops in the hinterland in one such room recently, one thing became very clear: Zambia has a rich landscape which nourishes diverse crops for consumption. However, one crop continues to dominate the farmlands, maize, the country’s staple food.
Apart from satisfying the taste buds of its users and being relatively easy to cultivate, maize is a good source of vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. Nonetheless, the disadvantage is that reliance on it takes attention away from other foods which are just as easy to grow and could provide other much needed nutrients for the body.
This info came to light during a plenary discussion at Tecla Conference Room in Lusaka organised by Galaxy Media on behalf of Hivos.
Hivos Regional Advocacy Manager – Sustainable Foods, Southern Africa, William Chilufya, said the organisation is implementing a Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All) programme in Zambia aimed at ensuring that information on food value and consumption is made available to all.
“However,  we realise that in order  to effectively roll out this programme, we need the media to understand the importance of nutrition and healthy diets so that readers are aware of the various options they have in terms of what foods to eat and what nutrients they will get from the food,” he said.
Mr Chilufya said sustainable diets are understood to be protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable.
They are also nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources.
Leading a discussion on basics about nutrition and diets, a nutritionist, Nelly Phiri said the media has a special role to communicate to readers the importance of growing various foods to ensure people have access to all nutrients.
Ms Phiri said a complete group of nutrients consists of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, pointing out that one needs all these nourishments to be nutritionally healthy.
“While starvation and under-nutrition are rare in Zambia, there is a widespread ‘hidden hunger’ in the form of micronutrient deficiencies caused by dependence on starch based diets involving maize and bread,” she said.
Such deprivation manifests in such conditions as stunted growth, obesity and malnutrition. These conditions are common in small children.
The panel discussion established that food insecurity and severely inadequate diets constrain development and trap people in poverty. It is for these reasons that the media and other stakeholders were urged to raise awareness on the need to diversify food production and also to eat a balanced died. The message, the panel said must be conveyed especially in rural and peri-urban areas.
Ms Phiri said information on food, water and seasonal variations that affect poor communities is severely lacking, thus the necessity to design support programmes that prevent food insecurity from worsening and building resilience to unexpected shocks and stresses.
“For example, people need to know that water is very important in a balanced diet as it helps in the breaking up of certain nutrients needed in the body. It is very important to take a lot of water during the course of the day and also at least thirty minutes before or after a meal,” she said.
Ms Phiri noted that government policy has generally influenced farmers’ decisions on what crops to grow and it is more economically viable to grow maize due to access to farming inputs and a guaranteed market for the crops. However, she said it is also important to underscore the nutritional value of other crops which can be grown side-by-side with the maize.
‘The idea is to encourage farmers willing to adapt to crop diversification, because while most households are able to either buy or grow enough maize for daily consumption; the diets lack diversity when it comes to fruits and vegetables,” she said.
It was observed that households with low dietary diversity do not regularly consume the quantities of fruits and vegetables needed to support good nutrition, normal development and productivity lifestyle.
The panel agreed that Zambia needs to produce enough fruits and vegetables to give households access to a diverse diet. This can also help individuals to maintain a healthy body mass index.
Concern was also raised on the type of lunch packs school-going children carry. Ms Phiri said there is need to raise awareness on the issue to curb malnutrition and obesity among young people.
“Parents need information on the best available foods to pack for their children that will not only be tasty to eat but will also have nutritional value,” she said.
Mr Chilufya emphasised that Zambia needs to move towards food diversity in production and consumption to achieve good public health.
“Hivos is here to provide tools to help address food systems challenges through initiatives like the Chongwe Food Lab – through the lab, Hivos can demonstrate what works in the programme and what is worth exploring.
He stated that there is need to ensure that food-based dietary guidelines inform policy decisions to reshape food systems and ensure that fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are made more available, affordable and safe for all.
Mr Chilufya said the Hivos has a long-term goal of promoting and advocating for more sustainable, diverse, healthy and nutritious food to be made available to low-income citizens by focusing on agriculture research investments to support healthy diets and good nutrition.