Gardening for better nutrition

Preventative healthcareFood Security

by Ian Horne.

Small food gardens near the family home have traditionally made an important contribution to family nutrition. Home gardens can help provide variety in the diet and supply vital vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates and proteins. Good nutrition helps the body to resist disease, so home gardens help improve family health.

In recent years, many people’s traditional diets have changed. More processed foods are now eaten. Rural farmers may now grow crops to sell rather than for family use. This means they may grow fewer crop varieties, particularly of vegetables. Wild leaves, roots and berries traditionally harvested as food may no longer be available as a result of deforestation and lack of access to communal land. Because of these trends, the diets of many poor people have lost their original variety of traditional foods and they lack enough income to buy a varied and adequate diet. Home gardens can help improve family nutrition, encourage traditional varieties, improve health, produce medicinal plants and save money.

Working with women is usually the key to improving nutrition through home gardens. Pregnant and nursing mothers and young children are more likely to suffer from malnutrition. Women also usually prepare, process and store family food supplies.

Before planning such work, take time to assess local nutritional problems and consider how these might be solved. Where lack of protein is a serious problem, home garden projects may include the growing of high-protein crops, such as beans of all kinds, as well as the raising of fish, poultry and small animals. In situations where deficiencies of iron (anaemia) and calcium are common, promote vegetables with high iron and calcium content. Where vitamin A deficiency causes ill health and night blindness among the poor, promote leafy green vegetables and other crops, such as sweet peppers and carrots, which are rich in vitamin A.

In urban areas there may be a small area of land outside the home or by the roadside which could be cultivated. Otherwise herbs, tomatoes and leafy crops can be grown in tubs made from old tyres or plastic buckets by windows or doors and watered with waste water.

Setting up a home garden project

We can learn a lot about how to set up a home garden from the experience of the San Lucas Association (SLA) in Peru. Here are some key points for success.

Assess local nutritional needs What are the main nutritional problems in the community and how are they linked to eating habits? What crops are grown? Are they used for income or family consumption? How do families budget for buying food? What are the main problems in producing food (for example, lack of land or labour, pest damage, lack of skills, poor storage)? What are the main problems in cooking and preparing food?

Organisation Consider carefully how to organise production – in either individual or communal plots and how to co-ordinate support.

Choose crops well Crops should be:

  • easy to grow, with short growing cycle or long cropping season 
  • adapted to the local climate and soil
  • locally grown
  • popular, with a good flavour
  • pest and disease resistant.

When choosing suitable vegetables, study the diet of poor families with good health. Also study the diet of older people with more traditional food customs.

Link production to good nutrition Enjoyable training on nutrition and preparing balanced meals is vital. Local prejudices against certain foods may need challenging.

Water availability When water is scarce, other domestic needs are likely to take priority. Improve the water available to plants by: 

  • covering soil around plants with a mulch of leaves or grass
  • shading young plants
  • removing weeds (they compete for water)
  • add manure and compost to improve water retention.

Pests and diseases Provide technical help on identifying and treating pests and diseases. Help producers prepare organic pesticides. Distribute leaflets with clear diagrams.

Protect and feed the soil Consider using techniques such as cover crops to cover the soil and contour barriers which prevent soil from being washed away. SLA encourages compost-making to improve soil fertility.

A few final comments

Warmikunam Cristianas Trabajaykan (WCT) works with indigenous groups in northern Peru. They have found home garden projects useful for empowering women and developing more effective local organisations. This work may lead to commercial production and the processing of garden produce to raise extra income. Such projects contribute to broader community development and solidarity.

PRODAD, in Nicaragua, encourages producers to share part of their garden produce with widows, child feeding centres and other people in need, demonstrating care and concern within the community.

In rural areas, landless people are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition. For home gardens to benefit such people, we will need to help them to have secure access to land.

Special thanks are due to Tearfund partners San Lucas Association and Warmikunam Cristianas Trabajaykan (Peru), CORCRIDE (Honduras), and PRODAD (Nicaragua), who provided information for this article. Ian Horne is a nutritionist with an interest in rural development and currently works with Tearfund as Desk Officer for the Andean Region. He formerly worked on a home gardens project in Mexico.

Case study: San Lucas Association

The San Lucas Association (SLA) in Peru works with poor farming communities in the jungle area of Moyabamba. Here the main crops are rice, coffee, banana, maize and manioc (cassava). Through community meetings and a needs assessment with local people, high rates of infant malnutrition and low consumption of fruits and vegetables were revealed. SLA began a gardening project in the schools of four communities, involving the teachers, pupils and parents’ associations. Many families then established vegetable plots on their own land. Recently, SLA has started a community and family gardens project, working mainly with existing grass roots organisations.

The mothers chose their own leaders to coordinate groups of 15–20 women in each village. Each woman cultivates a small home garden near her house, ideally 10 square metres in size. SLA provides training and support with two visits each month, as well as seeds and some hand tools. The training includes technical information on how to grow vegetables, how to maintain soil fertility, basic nutrition and how to prepare nutritionally balanced dishes with the vegetables.

The crops which have proved most successful are coriander, radish, carrot, small marrows, cabbage and tomato. SLA begin with three or four popular and nutritious vegetables. Later, as producers improve their gardening skills, there may be surplus production for sale.

Major problems have been a lack of water in the dry season and crop losses (from pests, diseases, thieves and livestock). To help resolve the water problem, communities have used pipes to take water from nearby streams and adapted plastic drinking bottles to serve as sprinklers. SLA helps producers identify pests and trains them in using natural pesticides. Losses due to thieves and roaming livestock have been largely solved through community agreements and fencing the gardens.

Practical tips

  • Provide nutrition training and enjoyable participatory workshops where balanced meals are prepared.
  • Introduce new crops slowly and only when they have special nutritional benefits.
  • Include leafy dark green vegetables as good sources of vitamin A. Older leaves tend to have higher levels of vitamin A.
  • Encourage crops rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, sweet peppers and tomatoes.
  • Promote beans, peas and lentils. For maximum protein levels, encourage people to grow and eat a mixture of beans, peas or lentils and starchy vegetables and at each mealtime.
  • Consider promoting fish farming and the production of chickens, rabbits or other small animals.
  • The leaves and fruits of many trees can make a vital contribution to family nutrition. Plant them in corners of the garden where they do not shade vegetable crops. They often have greater drought resistance because of their extensive root systems.
  • Plan planting carefully so crops provide food all year round, particularly during the ‘lean seasons’ when vegetables and fruits are in short supply.