Ms Pinchai and her son Phet in front of their house in Ban Soptud, a remote village in Luangnathma Province, northern Laos.
In Lao PDR, chronic malnutrition remains one of the major challenges for development, affecting nearly 300,000 children under five years of age. In rural areas, every second child is not getting the chance to develop to their full potential. With an innovative project called Feeding the Future, WFP is taking nutrition education to remote villages, teaching young mothers and other care-givers the importance of a complete and diverse diet.
In Ban Soptud, a small village in the remote and mountainous north of Lao PDR, 23-year-old Ms Pinchai welcomes us to her home. She shares a traditional wooden hut with her husband and their two children as well as her husband’s parents. As we settle down in front of the house, Ms Pinchai’s three-year-old daughter shyly hides inside the house; but 10 month old Phet curiously peers at the visitors from the safety of his mother’s lap.
Like many families in Ban Soptud, Ms Pinchai and her husband cultivate rice in the mountains. But unlike most of their neighbours they also own a small paddy field close to a nearby river and therefore usually have enough rice for 12 months of the year. However, as Ms Pinchai learned in the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Feeding the Future training she attended in late 2008, having enough rice to feed her children is not enough to guarantee they will develop to their full potential.
“The training showed me how I must use various types of food to keep my family in good health”, Ms Pinchai says describing the main message she took away from the training. When asked to give an example, she points at a poster on her wall that was used during the session. It shows a triangular flag divided in six sections, each filled with examples of locally available foods. “I learned that we have to eat food from all six food groups and not only rice and vegetables,” she explains.
Innovative training materials such as this ‘Food Flag’ are used during the Feeding the Future training to teach people in remote mountainous areas of Lao PDR about chronic malnutrition and its prevention. Chronic malnutrition is one of the biggest challenges in rural Lao PDR, where every second child below 5 years of age is stunted. Alarmingly, this figure is even higher in some ethnic groups in the uplands. Chronic malnutrition affects the physical and cognitive development of children and therefore hampers learning ability. This, in turn, impacts household income earning potential, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and undernutrition. Improving nutritional knowledge and diets is therefore central to accelerating future development in Lao PDR.
Ms Pinchai was one of 35 people from her village who participated in the Feeding the Future pilot training WFP conducted in 2008 in four villages in northern Lao PDR. A second visit to the same villages in early 2009 showed a lasting effect of the training: “My friends and me now cook some dishes we didn’t know before, like vegetables with oil and sesame seed”, Ms Pinchai explains. “I also see that people pay more attention to cleaning their cooking pots and cutlery before and after cooking. And we just talk a lot more about the food we eat.”
Feeding the Future is a nutrition education project, which takes a community-based approach to nutrition. It is aimed at remote, rural communities who have access to natural resources in their environment. The goal is to teach women of reproductive age and other care-givers in the family about good nutrition habits which are culturally accepted and adaptable. They learn how to use locally available foods from forests and gardens, cook in a nutritionally friendly manner and increase the diversity of their diets. Trainers use culturally specific, interactive and enjoyable training tools, working with photographs and other visual materials such as the ‘Food Flag’, and messages are reinforced through cooking sessions, role plays and a nutrition game.
Overall, more than 80 percent of all participants across the four pilot villages were able to recall most training messages. Household interviews also showed that people had started to put lessons into practice, and were communicating the things they learned to other villagers.
These results encouraged WFP to expand the Feeding the Future training to more villages. In 2010, WFP started to train staff from the Lao Ministry of Health, two mass organisations and five local and international NGOs to conduct Feeding the Future sessions in villages. WFP also produced a video of role plays, and a comprehensive training kit to guarantee each new training is as creative and effective as the one given to Ms Pinchai. In 2010 and 2011, more than 100 villages will participate in the training.
Phet is drifting off to sleep as we leave the family to start the long journey back to Lao PDR’s capital Vientiane. As she puts him to sleep next to his sister, Ms Pinchai quietly says: “The best thing I learned is how I can give my children the right food. Now they will grow up to be strong and healthy, and have a good future.”