A recent study involving 2,822 students in Central and Northern Tanzania suggests it is possible to change children’s negative attitudes on protein-rich pigeon peas, increase their acceptability, boost nutrition, and increase incomes.
The tolling of the afternoon bell marks the end of lessons at Babati Day Secondary School in Tanzania’s northern Manyara region.
It ushers in a moment of joy for the students in neatly pressed uniforms, who anxiously line up to get their meal.
Drizzled with sweat, a middle-aged cook, in fluttering green apron, is cloistered in a smoke-belching kitchen. He quickly dishes out portions of pigeon pea stew with rice.
Besides traditional Ugali (maize meal) and beans, the students are now treated with healthy recipes, thanks to the Smart Foods Initiative launched to improve nutrition and boost incomes.
Meanwhile, about 102km away, in the wind-swept Kondoa Township nestled on the central plateau, John Gwandu is busy chopping onions, anointing them with crushed ginger and toss them in boiling oil while briskly stirring with a giant cooking stick.
A gush of steam wafts as he hurls freshly boiled pigeon peas into the sizzling onions to make a thick stew.
“Pigeon pea is simple to cook and tastier,” says Gwandu adding “It is faster to cook than beans.”
The 43-year-old chef, at Amani Abeid Karume Secondary School in a drought-hit Kondoa district, in Dodoma, has just received training to prepare Smart Food Recipes, widely considered healthy and cost-effective.
As part of its broader initiative to improve nutrition and promote consumption of neglected crops including pigeon pea and finger millet, Tanzania government recently authorized researchers to test palatability and acceptability of the legumes.
Pigeon pea is the third-largest food legume grown in Tanzania after beans and groundnuts. The country produces approximately 200,000 metric tons, most of which is exported to India as whole grain.
However, due to India’s 2017 restrictions on Pigeon pea importation, farmers were left with huge surplus harvests which are now purchased by the schools.
A study conducted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) — a non-profit agriculture research organization supported by many entities that include multiple governments, 80 and 70 percent of Tanzanian students changed their negative attitudes on pigeon pea and finger millet crops.
Dubbed “Participatory approach by involving adolescent school children in evaluating smart food dishes in school feeding programmes—real-time experience from central and northern Tanzania,” the study tested the acceptance of, pigeon pea and finger millet-based meals in a school feeding programs through training sessions on the nutritional quality and the crops’ sensory characteristics.
The study reveals, majority of the students wanted pigeon pea to be included in their meals multiple times and 80 percent of them wanted to eat meals based on finger millet all the days.
During the research, a total of 2,822 students in four schools were fed improved meals including Pigeon pea and finger millet besides traditional maize and beans dishes.
The schools’ cooks had been trained by professional chefs and district nutritionists to make new recipes including finger millet porridge and pigeon pea stew slathered in groundnut or coconut cream.
SMART FOODS INITIATIVE
Anitha Seetha, a senior scientist and nutritionist at ICRISAT tells Ubuntu Times that dietary diversity is key to ensure the intake of nutritious foods, although it is only possible if there is crop diversity.
“Dietary diversity is not just eating different foods. It is eating different foods to meet nutrition goals,” she says.
According to her creating crop diversity alone does not guarantee dietary diversity since food perception and preferences influence consumption patterns.
Seetha said the Smart Food initiative strives to change behaviors and ensuring that the cycle of crop diversity and dietary diversity hinges on nutrition.
She said that enriching the nutritional quality of food can help in addressing hidden hunger problems in sub-Sahara Africa, adding that finger millet and pigeon pea enrich the meal due to their rich protein and micronutrients.
The study has helped raise awareness on nutrition and changed students’ negative attitudes on healthy foods.
“Unless there is dietary diversity already in practice we cannot assume everything produced is consumed,” Seetha said.
During the baseline survey, the schools followed a weekly cyclical meal pattern with fixed menu specially designed by nutritionists to meet the students’ palatability.
To create nutritional diversity researchers formulated new recipes to complement traditional maize and beans dishes.
During the cooking exercise, the recipes were tasted for their palatability and acceptance among children, so that changes could be made in their cooking to conform to their traditional culinary culture
A total of 681 randomly selected students participated in sensory evaluation exercise entailing five hedonic scales with relevant emoji pictures to capture the students “likes” or “dislike” of the newly introduced recipes.
Most students initially disliked pigeon pea and finger millet based on myth that it was bitter and smelling bad, unpalatable and not tasty, researchers said.
The finding, however, suggested that pigeon pea-based meals had higher acceptance among the students participating in the exercise.
Including pigeon pea and finger millet in school diets infuses crop diversity in school feeding programs and also improves nutritional content of the meals while saving costs, researchers said.
Pigeon pea grows in various agro-ecological zones and is well adapted to dry climate conditions.
In sub-Sahara Africa it is widely grown in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, and Mozambique.
Amid worsening impacts of climate change, analysts say the crop has the potential to boost nutrition and improve food security.
Researchers said most families in study areas, initially shunned pigeon pea dishes because they thought it smells bad, bitter, and wasn’t good for mental health.
However, with the introduction of Smart Food Recipes, the people’s mindset is changing.
“When I didn’t add pigeon pea in the dish, the children used to wonder why I didn’t and ask me for it,” said Gwandu.
Including pulses in children’s meals has helped the schools to cut costs and triggered students taste buds saying smart meals are tastier and they would love to eat them daily.
Local chefs, moreover said cooking pigeon peas is easy, saves time and fuel as compared to beans which takes a long time.
Some teachers say the students like the new recipes including Makande (Maize and pigeon pea stew) so much that they become upset whenever they miss it.
Zawadi Kapinga, the Headmistress of Babati Day Secondary School was not sure if the children would love exotic recipes but was simply amazed by their insatiable appetite for the meals.
“When pigeon pea is not on the day’s menu, children ask for it,” she said.
Swapping maize and beans based meals with pigeon pea, helped the school save costs from approximately 99,388 to 19,800 Tanzanian shillings per meal depending on number of students and amount of food they ate before the intervention, the study finds.
The project, which was supported by Tanzania’s Prime Minister’s office, serves as a model to promote Smart Foods to be replicated to other countries with similar nutritional situation and dietary patterns with the aim to improve dietary diversity and nutritional status and create market opportunities for local farmers.
In Tanzania, pigeon pea was until recently exported since traditionally people eat beans to get protein.