How ‘Poshan Vatikas’ can help bridge the nutrition gap in women and children

Ananya Awasthi writes: They have the potential to simultaneously address the multiple goals of diet diversity, nutrition security, agri-food cultivation, local livelihood generation and environmental sustainability.

In the backdrop of the month-long celebrations for Poshan Maah in September 2021, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has been promoting the establishment of “Poshan Vatikas” across the country. Literally translating to nutri-gardens, the ministry plans to set up Poshan Vatikas across all anganwadi centres with the aim to provide a fresh supply of fruits, vegetables and even medicinal plants, especially in aspirational districts. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, the conceptual foundation of this programme builds on self-reliance and the adoption of sustainable food systems to address nutrition security amongst women and children. Nutri-gardens by themselves represent an exemplary global best practice which has the potential to address the multiple goals of diet diversity, nutrition security, agri-food cultivation, local livelihood generation and environmental sustainability.

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) final guidelines, released in January 2021, give a sneak peek into the government’s thinking behind the setting up of the Poshan Vatikas, with the launch of the Poshan 2.0 strategy shortly awaited. The guidelines state that the main objective of introducing Poshan Vatikas is to encourage community members to grow local food crops in their backyards and secure them with an inexpensive, regular and handy supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. This is directed towards addressing the micro-nutrient deficiencies through access to diverse and nutritious diets, coupled with the generation of economic activity for local cultivators and village industries. The guidelines identify potential land spaces that can be utilised to set up the Vatikas, including anganwadi centres, panchayat areas, government schools, vacant lands or any other patch of community/government land available in the locality. Additionally, the guidelines also mandate retrofitting these gardens with backyard poultry and fishing as per the prevalent food culture, which can be particularly useful in addressing the protein requirements.

It is also hoped that the nutri-gardens may act as a demonstration site to educate children about the need for the consumption of fresh food produce and promote messaging for healthy dietary behaviours amongst women. Pointing towards the importance of multi-ministerial convergence, the guidelines emphasise the need for collective action by the Ministry of AYUSH, Ministry of Environmental Affairs, the MGNREGA scheme, Poshan Panchayats and mother groups. As an example, the government has been incentivising a drive for the plantation of moringa at all anganwadi centres. Moringa, also known as sehjan or drumstick, is a native Indian plant, rich in beta carotene, iron, vitamins A, B2, B6 and C5 and exhibits multiple health benefits, including antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anti-diabetic and even anti-cancer properties.

Turning to scientific research, a review of global evidence demonstrates that setting up of nutri-gardens can significantly improve awareness about dietary diversity and a preference for the consumption of fresh food produce, especially in children. Experiences with school-yard gardens in the US have demonstrated an increased dietary intake of vegetables and fruits amongst children. Similarly, research from South Africa shows that the setting up of nutri-gardens can increase the likelihood of fresh food consumption. In Nepal, some trials were complemented with sensitisation modules on nutrition education and sustainable agriculture, though lack of parent involvement and access to fresh food produce were cited as key gaps that prevented the uptake of fresh food produce in children’s diets.

In India, the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation has been at the forefront of demonstrating the impact of nutri-gardens on increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Interventions included distribution of seed kits for growing green leafy vegetables, roots and saplings of fruit trees (for example lemon, papaya, guava and mango) and moringa. This was supplemented with awareness generation workshops and cooking demonstrations.

Interestingly, a systematic review of evidence from India and other South Asian countries highlights that while nutri-gardens have been able to scientifically demonstrate an increase in intermediate outcomes like dietary diversity which is critical for nutritional outcomes, evidence is lacking or inconclusive around the impact of nutri-gardens on the long-term nutritional parameters of women and children. In this context, a nation-wide launch of Poshan Vatikas presents the government and academia with an excellent opportunity to generate local evidence around the efficacy of nutri-gardens on the health and nutrition outcomes of women and children. Moreover, results from such implementation research can be extremely useful in informing the operational guidelines for setting up of Poshan Vatikas by anganwadi workers, especially given the unique context of India’s food diversity, geography and culture.

Finally, the proof is in the pudding. Success of the national strategy depends on how the Poshan Vatika programme is implemented. Expected barriers for implementation may include access to cultivable land, availability of a water source, protection against grazing, bandwidth and skill sets of anganwadi workers, supply of seeds and inputs, and coordination between diverse stakeholders for the translation of technical know-how on setting up of nutri-gardens. At the same time, the ministry also has an opportunity to promote Poshan Vatikas as a platform to increase convergence between its agriculture and nutrition policy, build capacity of anganwadi workers, including raising compensation for their expected labour, bridge the gap between production and consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and animal produce, disseminate messages on the importance of diet diversity and, ultimately, scale up a best practice that can contribute towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 24, 2021 under the title ‘Gardens of plenty’. The writer is assistant director, Harvard School of Public Health — India Research Center. Views expressed are personal.

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