Finding food coping strategies in your back garden

Posted on April 17, 2018

Up to 70% of households in rural settlements across South Africa are food insecure[1]. Food insecurity inevitably leads to malnutrition, stunting, poor development and decreased academic ability in children, as well as obesity, chronic diseases and mental health disorders in adults. Implicitly, it relates to a disadvantaged person who has been deprived of essential nutrients during vital phases in early childhood.

Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and nutrition and food composition expert, Prof Hettie Schӧnfeldt, says 53% of the sampled South African rural households in her study were severely food insecure[2]. South Africa is plagued with poverty, unemployment and a lack of knowledge which often results in an inability to access food that is nutritious and safe, making so many South African households food insecure.

Schӧnfeldt and her research team at the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being (IFNuW) were motivated by this very complex societal problem, wanting to improve the lives of many children and adults in South Africa who suffer from micro and macro nutrient deficiencies. Deficiencies of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin A and protein can lead to anaemia, immune deficiencies and kwashiorkor.

Considering inhibiting factors such as low incomes and lack of regular transport, Schӧnfeldt focused her research on traditional indigenous foods of South Africa in an effort to improve the knowledge of their nutritional composition. Such foods are also easily grown and therefore could be introduced into vegetable garden initiatives across rural areas. Vegetable gardens and small scale farmers of indigenous foods can serve as an essential means to supplementing the diets of impoverished people.

Schӧnfeldt explains that prior to their study, very little data existed on South African indigenous foods’ nutritional composition, with the majority of data coming from international platforms such as the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA) Food Composition Database.

'Indigenous food crops are not properly utilised, despite the wide diversity of these crops, including grains, leafy green vegetables and wild fruits,' says Schӧnfeldt. Grains are an important source of nutrients, including fibre, the B vitamins, and minerals such as iron, magnesium and selenium. The leafy green vegetables are an excellent source of fibre, folate and carotenoids. These vegetables also contain vitamins C and K and the minerals iron and calcium. They are also good antioxidants in the body. Wild fruits are great sources for essential nutrients such as potassium, vitamin C and folate, not to mention all the newly discovered polyphenols that contribute to optimal health.

While indigenous cereals such as sorghum and millet have been supplanted by maize across most of southern Africa, these indigenous cereals are known for their resistance to drought and are able to grow under various weather conditions. Apart from their nutritional value, Schӧnfeldt says this makes these cereals even more important because they can contribute to food security in times that are drastically affected by climate change. Though not fully commercialised, indigenous crops like sorghum meal are of economic value, and typically less expensive than maize meal.

Schӧnfeldt enriched food composition databases by paying special attention to the nutrient content of five traditional South African dark green leafy vegetables. These vegetables possess a high nutrient content and are rich in iron. Therefore, they could play an important role in combating iron deficiency and malnutrition in South Africa. These leafy vegetables include misbredie, pumpkin leaves, cowpea leaves, cat’s whiskers and wild jute.

An important objective of Schӧnfeldt’s research was to provide a vital and affordable supplementation to diets, motivating people to increase their consumption of these foods. Home vegetable gardens are an easy, inexpensive way to incorporate these indigenous foods into a diet. 'The importance of food coping strategies, such as planting and harvesting one’s own food thus strongly comes into focus,' says Schӧnfeldt. Her studies on other indigenous foods’ nutritional benefits also include amasi (fermented milk), Bonsmara cattle, ostriches, and goats.

Another challenge to food security in South Africa is urbanisation. The move from rural to urban areas is affecting people’s diets – moving away from traditional foods to fast foods with high salt, sugar and fat content. As a result, obesity and chronic disease are on the increase.

However, Schӧnfeldt’s research is making a significant difference on the ground, to the lives of many South Africans. And as a result of this work, the statistics on food insecurity in South Africa are slowly improving. She has contributed greatly to changing government policies on nutrition, food composition and school feeding programmes. Schӧnfeldt also serves on a number of advisory committees, particularly for the national Departments of Health, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Basic Education, advocating through science the importance of nutrition and healthy food choices. She also works closely with the Department of Social Development to ensure their staff are well trained in nutrition, equipping them with the knowledge of the signs for malnutrition and food insecurity.

- Author Louise de Bruin

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