Who grows, Who eats: a reflection towards gender and social equity in Nutrition

Who grows, Who eats: a reflection towards gender and social equity in Nutrition

Homestead backyard gardens or kitchen gardens are a common sight in every other household in rural India. If we wish to find out what all vegetative and natural resources, from own production are being preserved, multiplied and sourced to meet the intra-household food consumption or sharing, it has to be an woman who would be quickest to answer ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘how’. Women in households are the custodians of food distribution and rationing. Through their indigenous knowledge and age long traditional practices, they keep on gathering materials or plant resources to sow, manage and harvest many nutrition rich plants or crops, even in the smallest patch of land they have access to. In addition to this, a major source of protein rich diets such as milk, meat, egg and milk products are obtained from livestock, which are also primarily taken care by women.

However, women’s direct access to productive resources and production processes doesn’t necessarily ensure consumption of the food derived from these.

The theories of production pathway or income pathway of nutrition argue that with increase or diversification of food production and income; nutrition status can show a positive trend. However, there are no strong evidences to show whether and how this can address the existing gendered differences in diet and food consumption pattern within the household or community. This issue is multidimensional and there are strong linkage between social, cultural, demographic factors and women’s dietary behaviour in general. Through various studies, it is established that women’s education level and nutrition status are positively related; where it’s been observed that educated, aware and informed women are better in making decisions and adopting improved dietary practices for herself, her children and other household members. This also indicates there are strong correlation between factors influencing women’s empowerment and nutrition pattern. It is very important to bring equity in women’s share in the intra-household food consumption pattern, while recognizing the fact that they are prime producers and managers of many of these food sources. Emphasis on behaviour change communication, creation of enabling environment for empowerment could be few key decisive factors to address this issue. It is very important that future and ongoing programmes, policies focused on income and agriculture production enhancement carry a systemic integration of these measures in their design and implementation.

Not limiting this to gender inequity, the attention should also be driven to a phenomenon which can be termed as a rising social inequity in the field of dietary and food consumption practices. The question of ‘who grows and who eats’ keep on resurfacing when we look at the producer and consumer base of many nutrient rich food products and sources. This shifts our focus to a modernized market proliferated in urban suburbs and then back to the fertile grounds lying in the remote hinterlands.  With rise in income, knowledge, information, communication, and electronic media platforms; the educated urban consumers have shown a shift in their dietary behaviour. There are trends of many supermarkets, hypermarkets, stores having dedicated space and compartments for healthy and nutrient rich food items in volumes. These, often referred as superfoods are extremely popular and here to stay, given the time poverty of urban households, unable to invest in elaborative food selection and preparation processes any more.

These popular superfoods are made from agricultural produces like millets, coarse cereals and other items. Once considered as default and naturally grown crops in many interior, hilly, forest based agro-ecosystems; these foods from the most developmentally excluded regions, have now become the food of the most developed.  With advancement of science, research and knowledge; the nutritional aspect of these foods have been discovered and capitalized through various scientifically designed value addition and food processing methods. Many dedicated industries are known to be operating in value addition.

However, the ironical is the fact that many of these fertile sourcing grounds and geographies have the highest population suffering from continued malnutrition, low BMI, and poor dietary diversity. These sourcing grounds are the regions which have the highest poverty rates, low income rates and poor human development index. However, the innovated and value added products sourced from these areas, remain at one of the highest pricing brackets in the market where they are sold, when compared with similar goods. This calls for attention for stronger research and development initiatives to devise ways for infusing the discovered benefits and values of these superfoods to the people who grows them or have them by default. Being at the closest in terms of access and ownership, it is a right of the rural population or growers as well as the responsibility for programme and policy designers to establish the equity to reduce this ironical disparity in nutrition. It’s important to invest and further the domain of innovations in devising localized low cost value addition methods as well as commercialization/popularization of the end products in the sourcing belt itself. This also calls for institution driven efforts for mass sensitization and behaviour change for stimulating local consumption either in existing or improvised form of the nutrient rich foods.

Swati Nayak

Specialist – Agricultural Research & Development,

International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)

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