Discovering natural resources and nutrition in a whole new way
Rakhi Ghosh, Rayagada, Odisha
April 21, 2017

Even in 21st century India there is a sizeable number of children for whom life is riddled with poverty, food insecurity, poor nutrition and minimal access to safe water, sanitation and health services. In Odisha, tribal people are among the most deprived and backward of ethnic groups and they constitute 23 per cent of the population in the state. Such has been the cycle of desperation that for women like Chandrabati Kadraka, Mangi Kumuruka, Pratima Kumuruka, Latika Toiba, Lalita Mandai, and hundreds of others like them, impoverishment, exploitation and ill-health have always been a part of life. But these days they are gradually equipping themselves to break free. With support from Living Farms, a non-profit organisation working on food and nutrition security, the women are going back to their native wisdom to, at least, secure the health of their coming generations

Ever since she participated in the 15-day nutrition camp that was held in her Nuagaon Village, in Bissam Cuttack Block of Odisha’s Rayagada District, Chandrabati Kadraka, 22, has been a happy woman. For the first time since her daughter, Tiki, was born two years and four months ago, she now knows how to properly nurture her into a healthy child. Her baby girl is weak and, consequently, falls ill quite frequently, giving the young mother sleepless nights.

Most women like Majia Kumuruka (above) have taken to cultivating a nutrition garden in their backyard.

“Fortunately, I have understood the importance of having a balanced meal put together from locally grown produce. We have a variety of foods, including various types of tubers and roots gathered from nearby forests, which are unique to our diet. Previously, we were hesitant to feed them to our kids. However, at the camp, I came to know how our tribal foods are highly nutritious, particularly for children,” elaborates Chandrabati. In Nuagaon, 12 mothers with children under three years of age attended the camp.

According to Bichitra Biswal of Living Farms, “Kondh tribal farmers were growing different varieties of traditional foods in the upland and hill areas. But with time most shifted to cash crop cultivation for money. Naturally, the highly nutritious foods have disappeared from their plates. Through the camps, we are trying to generate awareness around the good values of their indigenous fare.”

Nutritionist Tapaswini Swain explains, “Tribal people are believed to be the closest to nature. They consume foods with very minimal processing and the duration from the field to the plate is less, hence the bioavailability of nutrients is very high. Millets, for example, grow in abundance and are a storehouse of nutrients, as they contain protein, fibre as well as micronutrients such as beta carotene, iron and calcium.”

Every six months, Living Farms conducts an assessment of dietary diversity in 200 villages across Bissam Cuttack, Muniguda and Chandrapur Blocks. “In Rayagada, there is immense food diversity – from pulses, millets and other grains to fruits, vegetables, tubers and mushrooms. We are promoting their nutritive value aggressively in order to encourage the locals to consciously make them a part of their food regime so that their health parameters improve. During our assessments, we found a marked change among those consuming these items regularly,” reveals Biswal.

Emphasising the need to have fresh, locally grown or gathered produce, Mangi Kumuruka, 65, enumerates the wide array of millets they have to choose from. “There’s mandia or ragi (finger millet), juara (great millet), bajra (spiked millet), kangu (Italian millet), kodua (kodo millet), khira (barnyard millet) and suan (little millet). Millets are full of iron and calcium and it’s important for pregnant women to have them. As it is, tribal women are largely dependent on deriving nutrition from forest foods and it’s even more critical to have these when they are expecting so that both mother and child remain healthy during those critical days,” she explains.

Pratima Kumuruka, another Kondh tribal woman, adds, “There are no chemical fertilisers in our foods so we do not see many pregnancy related complications among tribal women. Rather, if we take millets and pulses regularly, our children are healthier.”

A tribal woman feeding her son nutritious ragi soup.

These days, Krushna Toiba and his wife, Latika, of Badeipadar Village, too, are convinced that millets provide sufficient nutrition to children. That’s why when the Accredited Social Health Assistant (ASHA) worker of their village asked them to start complementary feed for their seven-month-old child, the duo decided to give mandia. “Today, our daughter eats all types of millets and she is healthy,” shares Krushna with a smile.

Indeed, after participating in the nutrition camp and interacting with activists of Living Farms, there has been a definite transformation in the way the tribal people approach food. Notably, families like Toiba’s have even started cultivating their own little kitchen gardens to ensure a steady supply, whatever the season.

“While earlier they used to typically grow three or four types of vegetables and that too during the monsoon season, nowadays they are sow 15-20 varieties and harvest throughout the year,” says Biswal.

Latika, for instance, has grown nearly 27 varieties of vegetables and fruits for family consumption in the small patch in her backyard. “We do not buy vegetables from the local haat (market) as the produce is adequate for all of us,” she declares proudly. Most women have taken to growing nutrition garden in their backyard. “We collected seeds from neighbouring villages by sharing seeds of traditional crops and presently we have a variety of seeds. So much so that we do not have to buy them from the market; rather, we collect and preserve our own,” says Majia Kumuruka.

Whereas good farming practices are one aspect of healthy eating, preparing meals is another. A few elderly tribal women share their concerns about the indifference of the younger generation with regard to the traditional preparations. “Our food is our identity, once our food is lost we will be lost,” remarks Rupa Kumuruka, 52, of Badeipadar Village, rather ominously. However, from the time Living Farms has been organising recipe festivals, during which the community elders rustle up some delicious dishes from millets and other forest foods, there’s been a revival of interest. These versions, of course, are tweaked to catch the imagination of the youngsters, who are more attracted to spicy street fare easily available in haats. Young daughters-in-law are trying their hand at making ladoos, halwa, pakora from finger millet, Niger and foxtail millet. “In the recipe festival, the emphasis is on making wholesome dishes that children will relish,” says Biswal.

Lalita Mandai, whose son is going to turn three, says, “Not only have I learnt how to use cereals, pulses, tubers, spinach and vegetables to make interesting meals I have seen how to prepare a special kind of chattua (food powder) from millets and nuts which is much better than any kind of readily available baby food in the market.”

Chandrabati is also generously adding millets, pulses and tubers to their daily diet. “At home, I used to make khechudi with cooked rice, pulse and vegetables. But I have begun adding different tubers to this mix. Another dish Tiki loves is my millet kheer that is high on iron and calcium,” she says.

(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)

March 2017