Millets vs Malnutrition: Reviving The Super Crop Via Nutrient-Rich Meals at Odisha’s Anganwadis

Other News Materials 5 August 2022 04:52 (UTC +04:00)
Millets vs Malnutrition: Reviving The Super Crop Via Nutrient-Rich Meals at Odisha’s Anganwadis

As many as 3,751 preschool children within 3 to 6 years of age, in Lakhimpur, are being fed little millet khichdi twice a week as part of the Odisha Millets Mission, a flagship programme launched by the state to revive millets in the tribal areas here. The initiative, run in collaboration with the Mission Shakti Department, also introduced millets-based dishes at anganwadi centres.

“Earlier, millets were considered a poor-man’s food. But now, even the government has recognised its health benefits,” Dani explains, hopeful that the younger generation will come to appreciate the nutritive value of this cereal crop.

Adivasi women play an instrumental role in introducing millets-based recipes to the meals of schoolchildren, to fight malnutrition and ensure dietary diversity among preschool children. The need for such a programme stems from the abysmal state of nutrition among young ones in the state — over 69% of children in Odisha in the age group of 6 months to 4 years are anaemic, according to the National Family Health Survey-5, 2019. Similarly, in the age group of 5 years, 33.5% are underweight, 43.1% are stunted and 15.9% are wasted. In Koraput district, where the mission has been introduced, over 44% of the children are underweight, 40.6% are stunted and 28.5% are wasted.

Located in the Eastern Ghats, Koraput is home to several indigenous communities and represents a unique mosaic of ethnic life and culture. Over 50% of its population belongs to the Scheduled Tribes, who sustain their livelihood primarily on rainfed agriculture, collection of uncultivated wild food and forest produce.

Over the years, monocropping and the use of chemical inputs to enhance crop yield eroded the rich agrobiodiversity once abundantly found in the tribal hinterlands. As a result, the area under millet cultivation shrunk, forcing the tribes to replace climate-resilient, nutritious traditional crops with hybrid paddy, maize and cotton. The public distribution of rice and wheat also lowered the importance of local food culture and preferences, while the influence of urban food diminished the demand for local cuisine, especially among the youth.

“These days, the diet of tribal children is not optimally diverse and has, instead, become cereal-centric,” says District Social Welfare Officer of Koraput Bidyulata Patra. “The traditional varieties of millets, pulses, vegetables and wild fruits, which they once consumed regularly, are now missing from their plates.”

Children between 0 to 6 years need special attention as the nutrition they receive at this time lays the foundation for their optimal development. During this phase, lack of a nutritious, balanced diet could result in lifelong health implications and increase the risk of a child becoming undernourished and prone to micronutrient deficiency.

To address this challenge, “Inclusion of millets in the Integrated Child Development Service programme would transform the nutritional status of preschool children,” believes Sabita Sahu, Child Development Project Officer in Koraput’s Lakhimpur block. “This would increase dietary diversity and nutritional gains and also revive the age-old traditional culture of millet consumption.”

District Collector of Koraput Abdaal M Akhtar (IAS) stresses, “It’s high time we promote these nutri-cereals to fight against malnutrition as millets are traditionally a major staple among tribal communities. They are also climate-resilient crops, can thrive with less water and have pest-resistant qualities.”

Similarly, Dr Debabrata Panda, Assistant Professor, Department of Biodiversity and Conservation of Natural Resources at Koraput Central University, points at the “immense potential’ that such traditional crops have “to bridge the nutrition gap among women and children”.

“The diversity of local food should not be underestimated,” he warns.

Several studies have emphasised that millets are rich in protein with a balanced amino acid profile, making them superior to most other cereals like maize, wheat and rice. Millets are high in calcium and folate content, which helps in foetus development, whereas magnesium and potassium control blood pressure. The crop is non-glutinous, easy to digest and also beneficial for women suffering from polycystic ovarian disease, as it helps to cut down visceral fat and regulate menstrual cycles.