September is Poshan Maah or nutrition month and rural women in Godda district of Jharkhand are making changes in their approach to food by starting kitchen gardens and cooking in iron cauldrons to fight anaemia and malnutrition.
Women celebrating the Poshan Maah or nutrition month. Photo: @onlineJSLPS
The Durga Mandi temple in Bhadaria village in Godda district Jharkhand is abuzz with chatter. Women of the village have gathered there to observe poshan maha or nutrition month. Each woman, sitting cross legged on the floor, holds lohe ki kadhai (iron cauldron).
The temple premise is decorated with colourful rangolis made using millets, pulses and vegetables. Using these healthy food items, the women have also written a slogan – ‘sahi poshan, desh roshan’ (right nutrition, enlightened country).
Together they are celebrating the Poshan Maah or nutrition month to spread awareness on the importance of eating right for a healthy life. And, the lohe ki kadhai is an integral part of this celebration.
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Holding her lohe ki kadhai, Manisha Devi from Bhadaria village, addressed the gathering. “Cooking food in iron utensils fulfils the need for iron in our body. Iron is a must for our body especially for pregnant and lactating mothers. It helps the body in the production of blood. Iron-deficiency can lead to anaemia,” the mother of a toddler explained.
Manisha was married when she was only eighteen years old and hardly had any idea about nutrition, the young mother told Gaon Connection. “I had no understanding of nutrition and I frequently had headaches, joint pains and general weakness,” she recounted.
Fortunately for Manisha, she happened to attend a meeting in 2018 organised by the non profit, Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) that works with the rural poor in seven of the poorest states in the country. PRADAN had conducted a meeting at Godda to spread awareness on nutrition, as part of the project STaRtuP (SHG led transformation of Rural communities through Partnership) supported by the IKEA Foundation.
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It was at the same meeting that Manisha learnt the advantages of cooking in an iron kadhai. She claimed that ever since she started doing that, her aches and pains reduced dramatically.
She now spreads that information amongst her fellow village inhabitants. Most of the women gathered at the temple for celebrating the Poshan Maah knew that the body used iron to make haemoglobin, and that iron deficiency led to anaemia.
“The project began in December 2018, when we recruited eight mentor didis for working on health and nutrition, each covering two panchayats in Godda,” Abhishek Kumar, project executive, told Gaon Connection. The didis are volunteers from the villages, and we will soon be looking at getting more didis, to spread awareness about nutrition amongst the villages in the district,” Kumar added.
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It took some time before the women truly appreciated the importance of iron in their nutrition. “The first time I cooked vegetables in the lohe ka kadhai, they turned black! My husband warned me never to cook in that again,” 26-year-old Anku Devi, from Bhadaria, told Gaon Connection.
But, then she learnt that after cooking, she had to transfer the vegetables to another container, and the vegetables would not turn black then. Now, her husband has also come around to her way of thinking, she laughed and told Gaon Connection.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4), 8.6 per cent of children, 53.2 per cent of non-pregnant women and 50.4 per cent of pregnant women were anaemic in the country. The national survey also revealed that Jharkhand had the highest percentage of women (15-49 years) with anaemia with 65.2 per cent, followed by Haryana at 62.7 per cent and West Bengal at 62.5 per cent.
In Jharkhand, 62.6 per cent of the pregnant women (15-49 years) were found to be anaemic in the health survey of 2015-16. As far as child malnutrition is concerned, the NFHS-4 found 47.8 per cent under-5 kids in the state to be underweight.
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The women of Godda district, cooked mainly with rice and corn, which was their main source of nutrition. However, they were trained by the SHGs and non profit PRADAN in cultivating and adding vegetables to their daily diet too.
In order to bring home the importance of eating a diverse diet, PRADAN introduced the rural women to the concept of a tiranga thali (a tricolour meal).
“When we initially heard about it, we assumed they were referring to three different coloured plates,” laughed Gayatri Devi. “We learnt later that they were actually talking to us about including at least three different coloured foods in our diet,” the 58-year-old told Gaon Connection.
The women were encouraged to use orange or yellow coloured pulses, white rice, and green vegetables. “We will be free of all illnesses if we have the tiranga thali thrice a week,” Gayatri said.
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Rural women have also been trained to set up their kitchen gardens and grow their own vegetables. With proper guidance from PRADAN, Gayatri and many others like her, prepared the beds to receive the seeds and sowed spinach, coriander, cauliflower, radish, etc. “We harvest them and add them to our own meals, and the extra vegetables we manage to sell,” she said.
“Our family would have to spend more than five hundred rupees on green vegetables and fruits in a month if we had to consume them,” Vishaka, who said she was from a low income family, told Gaon Connection. The 45-year-old described fresh vegetables as luxury. But, soon she tried growing her own vegetables. “I was nervous at first, but as the first batch grew, my confidence grew,” Vishaka admitted.
“A handful of coriander will set you back five rupees, and it is not fresh. However, we can now harvest as much fresh coriander as we need,” Vishaka said. “This kitchen garden satisfies our nutritional needs, provides us with food, and provides us with a source of cash too. Now we save money on fruits and vegetables while also making money from them, and we occasionally give the balance of the fruits and veggies to our relatives,” she concluded.
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Significantly, awareness on nutrition and prioritising their health, has brought about certain changes in age old and patriarchal social practices too. “In most households, women eat only after the male members have finished eating and are often left with nothing more than just rice and roti,” Manisha from Pathargama village pointed out. This is a very common practice in many households and one of the main reasons that leave the women undernourished, she added.
“But now we encourage family members to sit together and have their meals and in this way ensure food is shared equally amongst everyone, men, women and children,” Manisha said.