Safeguarding nutrition through home gardening
An op-ed by Dr. Gillian Smith, FAO Representative
As we buckle down for what is likely to be a long and difficult period of social distancing and restricted movement to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our families, communities and country, we are all focusing on our immediate needs. Avoiding infection should continue to be a top priority for everyone.
At the same time, there are very practical requirements such as food – having access to sufficient, healthy alternative foods for all members of the family and community that meets the preferences and nutritional requirements to maintain healthy, productive lives.
Guyana is a net producer of food and fortunately, there are no shortages in the near future. Supermarkets and markets are largely doing the right thing by providing access to consumers in a safe way, paying close attention to social distancing and disinfection measures.
At the household level, an excellent way to supplement food needs is to start or re-invigorate your kitchen garden now! Guyana has a long history of promoting the cultivation of fresh produce in kitchen gardens. This does not substitute for the vital imperative for our farmers to continue producing nutritious, domestic crops for the nation.
The work of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations around the world suggests that kitchen gardens can supply up to half of all non-staple food needs, as well as a significant number of vitamins and minerals. This makes them an invaluable tool for food security, particularly for vulnerable families and communities that may already be struggling to meet their nutritional requirements. Growing vegetables such as calaloo (Bhaji) can help families to improve their nutrition by following the food-based dietary guidelines of Guyana (http://www.fao.org/3/a-as856e.pdf) which encourages consumption of a healthy, and economical mixed diet. We know that a healthy diet, high in fresh foods, vegetables, fruits and staples, such as sweet potatoes and eddoes will support a healthy immune system, which is especially important during times of stress and contagion. Home gardening also a valuable form of physical exercise (bending, stretching).
During this time of quarantine and self-isolation, the stress of coping with uncertainty and the “new normal” can be amplified. Beyond physical health, kitchen gardens can also contribute to supporting good mental health particularly of elderly persons and children by providing them with a productive outlet. Planning, establishing, tending and harvesting kitchen gardens are all activities that keep the mind occupied. These can be done at the pace of the individual to ensure that it does not become stressful or overwhelming. It does not have to be a competition!
For children of all ages, studies have shown that growing and harvesting their own vegetables from a kitchen garden can be fun and educational. Similar to school gardens, kitchen gardens can be used as a good teaching tool for home schooling of the children (an outdoor lab). Growing their own food can be rewarding and will promote a sense of accomplishment. However, more importantly, it has been demonstrated that younger children are also more likely to consume vegetables that they have grown. This can start them on a path of lifelong healthy eating.
There are many good examples of how to establish a kitchen garden, including from the Ministry of Agriculture. Here are a few tips to help you start:
- You do not need to have a lot of space. Even if you do not have a yard, you can grow tomatoes, calaloo, herbs in pots, flower beds, old drums and containers. Be creative! Here is an excellent guide for kitchen gardens in the Caribbean - http://www.fao.org/publications/card/en/c/0e21a170-f9ec-5d41-b474-081d727fe13c. Entitled A Vegetable Garden for All, this comprehensive, self-instruction manual by the FAO, is designed to help families, schools and communities to create appropriate kitchen gardens, maximizing the use of available resources to produce healthy, nutrient dense foods.
- Start simple but start now! Grow one or two vegetables or plants according to your experience and available resources. Thick leaf calaloo is often a good choice because it grows easily in small spaces and is highly nutritious. Even in a small kitchen garden, it is also possible to grow okra, bora, tomatoes, boulanger, pak choi, peppers, elshallots, celery and thyme (thick leaf and fine leaf) and married man.
- Start with seedlings. If you are like me, and not too handy with seeds, you can purchase seedlings from plant shops to start your garden. The persons who sell seedlings can also provide good advice about their care. In the case of plants like elshallots you can save the roots and plant the roots. Pumpkin and watermelon seeds can be saved and planted.
- Avoid the use of chemicals and fertilizers. Most household gardeners do not have sufficient experience to use these safely. In most instances, it is not necessary either.
- Do not be discouraged by setbacks. If you are not successful with your first venture, try another vegetable or staple. If cultivation was easy, then everyone would be a farmer!
- Pay attention to pests! Insects can undo your hard work by consuming plants in a short time. Examine your garden daily and remove pests. There are good examples of pest management at http://www.fao.org/3/v5290e/v5290e03.htm#P3383_116998
- Reduce organic waste from the kitchen. Use household vegetable waste to enrich the soil in your garden. Composting is easier than you think. There are excellent examples for small and large gardens and plots.
- Practice good hygiene. When you harvest, wash the produce carefully before use. Also remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap after you have been working in the garden.
- Encourage all family members to participate in the preparation of food. Let them be creative, especially children!
As with everything we are doing now, continue to practice social distancing, hand washing hygiene and keep safe. Share your kitchen garden successes and best practices with family, friends and the community via social media. It is a very good time to support family and community food security.