Helen Keller International’s homestead food production programs have been featured in a new book called “Nourishing Millions: Stories of Change in Nutrition.” Published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the book uses illustrative stories to showcase successful drivers and pathways to success in nutrition.
Malnutrition has received an unprecedented level of attention and political commitment in recent years. As the book points out, this is critical in creating momentum—but as it builds, best practices for achieving measurable improvements are needed. The lessons from the implementation and evaluation of promising nutrition interventions provided through these case studies provides such guidance to researchers, educators and implementers.
The chapter about agricultural interventions, “From the Ground Up,” tells the story of the evolution of Helen Keller International’s homestead food production program, which provides women the tools to grow more diverse and nutrient-rich foods for home consumption.
In the 1980s, two national nutrition surveys in Bangladesh revealed that 3.6 percent of pre-school age children suffered from night blindness due to severe vitamin A deficiency. Aware that Bangladeshi women are traditionally responsible for home food production, HKI tested the concept of encouraging women to integrate locally available vitamin A-rich fruits and green leafy vegetables into their garden plots together with training in simple techniques for improving the productivity of these gardens and nutrition education to encourage household consumption of harvested foods. In 1990, two pilots reaching 1,000 households were launched.
A few years later, new data indicated that the absorption of plant-based sources of vitamin A was much lower than expected. In response, HKI integrated animal husbandry into the HFP model. Animal source foods also add crucial iron and zinc to diets. By 2003, the program reached more than half of the country’s sub-districts and 870,000 households—and had expanded to other countries in Asia. In 2009, the first adaptations began in sub-Saharan Africa. Evaluations suggested the programs were successful in increasing production of these foods and reducing anemia in women and young children, but it wasn’t until HKI began collaborating with researchers such as those of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to improve the rigor of evaluation design has more credible evidence of impact has begun to emerge.
The collaboration with IFPRI in Burkina Faso, using community-randomized controlled designs — the gold standard for demonstrating causal links between programs and outcomes — showed the program increased women’s control of productive assets and their social status, and also had a positive impact on a number of measures of nutritional status, including child wasting (being dangerously thin), women’s underweight and child anemia. In addition, more vegetables were produced, consumed and sold, and women benefited from these surplus sales.
HKI prides itself on generating and using strong evidence not only to show the returns on investing in HFP but to strengthen the design of the program to increase its impact. In addition to the partnership with IFPRI, HKI works with the University of British Columbia in Cambodia and the University of Heidelberg in Bangladesh. In this way, HKI hopes eventually to make malnutrition a thing of the past.
To learn more about the successes of HKI and others, download the book in full by visiting the Nourishing Millions website.