Kenyan students blaze a trail for ‘planetary health’ diet

Children have been working hard to grow nutritious food in their school garden, boosting community health.

Cowpeas in Kenya
Students work with the school gardener to weed the plot where they have sown cowpeas to use in next term’s school lunches. Photo: World Agroforestry/Alina Paul-Bossuet

This month, the EAT-Lancet report made global headlines, calling for a drastic transformation of diets and food production. The report’s authors recommend “the planetary health diet” which, among other things, urges us to double consumption of fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts.  

This is old news for the 4K club (‘Kuungana, Kufanya, Kusaidia Kenya’ in Swahili, meaning ‘Coming together, to Act, to Help Kenya) in rural Machakos, about 100 kilometres southeast of Nairobi.

Here, 50 students have been working hard to grow a diverse food system in their school garden. With the help of agroforestry researchers, a green-fingered teacher committee and a local NGO, the barren plot behind their school was carefully divided up to plant climate-adapted, nutritious fruit, vegetable and pulses.

Vitamin A and C-rich mango and potassium-rich indigenous chocolate berry and desert date trees grow alongside vegetables high in iron and vitamin A, like spinach and black nightshade.

The students also sow folate and protein-rich pulses such as cowpea, whose leaves are a valuable source of vitamins, iron and folate. These are used in school meals, and the club participants take home saplings and seeds to plant on their home farms.

Researchers worked with the team to plant a nutritious food portfolio to provide healthy harvests containing vital micronutrients and minerals throughout the year in an attempt to tackle chronic malnutrition in these communities.

Serious deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals (known as hidden hunger) are rife in sub-Saharan Africa. Children are the first to suffer, and far too many will never reach their full physical and mental potential.

Vitamin A deficiency, for example, is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and increases the risk of death from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea. In Kenya, 10,000 children’s lives are lost each year due to a lack of vitamin A in their diet.  

Fruit, vegetables, pulses and nuts provide essential micronutrients for good health. But in East Africa, as in many other parts of the world, diets are dominated by starchy foods, with low consumption of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.

Kenya is far below the EAT-Lancet recommendations of 200g of fruit and 300g of vegetables per day with only 26kg and 88kg respectively consumed per person per year. Globally, the WHO attributes nearly 2.7 million deaths annually to inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables.

4K Club Students in Kenya
4k club students standing in front of their school wall painted with the healthy food system they have sown in their communal garden. Photo: World Agroforestry/Alina Paul-Bossuet

The 4K club in Machakos is a project under the Food Trees project, funded by EC/IFAD and implemented by World Agroforestry (ICRAF) in partnership with local NGOs like Feed the Children and key stakeholders like the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC).

The student clubs, set up at several schools in the country, not only educate youth on the need for diet diversity, but also link to surrounding farmers who visit the schools as demonstration sites to see how the approach has worked. 

Nutritious Food Portfolios have been developed for 16 sites across Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, including priority food tree species and complementary vegetables, pulses and staples.

The big idea is to show communities that normally suffer nutrient gaps in their diets how growing the right combination of food can provide yearlong essential nutrition, as well as opportunities to generate income.

Learning is a critical part of this initiative. During a recent visit of the 4K club to a nearby rural resource centre, the students learned about cuttings, grafting and improved varieties that fruit earlier and yield more. Nutrition training is also given to build awareness and drive long term dietary behaviour change.

4K club chocolate berry tree leaves in Kenya
4K club chairperson Ndunge Muli checks chocolate berry tree leaves for any sign of pests. Photo: World Agroforestry/Alina Paul-Bossuet

Including indigenous fruit trees like chocolate berry is important as these fruits are harvested several times a year and children enjoy the juicy ‘chocolate’ pulp. The bark is used to treat threadworm and other ailments, the young leaves can be cooked as spinach or fed to livestock, and the falling leaves provide excellent mulch for the soil.

Once established these trees do not need much care, but one of the challenges is the initial seed germination which can be difficult.

Like many other traditional foods, chocolate berries would benefit from research investment to study their nutrient composition and address the barriers hindering earlier and higher yields.

Ndunge Muli, who leads her student club, is ambitious and keen to add more to the garden.

“When we use the spinach and cowpeas in our school lunch, we are proud to say we grew it. We know these keep us healthy,” she said.

For Muli, the big challenge is being patient for new trees to fruit. “Waiting is hard, so now we can already see the mangoes and papayas in our garden, it motivates us to keep going.”

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