The daily ration for a 10-year-old child in Kenya might include getting a fist-sized portion of ugali, ground-up corn with water; a tortilla-sized piece of mandazi, a kind of fried bread; and a serving of dried fish, equivalent to five guppy fish. That’s only 30 percent of the total daily calories a child that age should eat.
Professor of nutritional science Paul Johnston is working with BYU students to help fix this problem affecting children across Kenya.
Johnston was invited to collaborate with Koins for Kenya, an Alpine-based nonprofit organization, to fight child hunger and starvation in Kenya by planting gardens which will provide the locals with food year-round.
Currently, locals and Koins for Kenya are working together to plant 100 gardens for families, which will begin producing food in January. The gardens are planted with a variety of foods indigenous to Africa as well as others Americans might consume. Locals will harvest the vegetables every two weeks to provide a variety of fresh food throughout the year.
“Our idea is to take the [food] we are raising and use it as a way to teach the children about nutrition,” Johnston said.
Children will be able to pick a sweet potato from the garden and know its nutritional qualities, Johnston said. Ideally, the children will be able to teach their parents about nutrition to prevent future nutrient deficiencies.
Koins for Kenya founder Bret Van Leeuwen said the program is also meant to help people be self-sufficient.
“We don’t want to create dependency,” Van Leeuwen said. “So we focused on education because that’s the way out.”
In order to get a garden, the locals volunteer to participate and learn farming techniques and practices from agricultural specialists. The gardens will work similar to a co-op, where they give up 10 percent of their crops to sell at the market. The money will go toward buying more seeds and farming equipment for future harvests.
In preparation for the gardens, Todd Gardner, a nutritional science major, analyzed the diets of the children. Koins for Kenya collected the heights, weights and diets of more than 300 children from villages across Kenya.
He compared their diets to world health standards and found the childrens’ nutrient intake was extremely deficient. Compared to world health standards, they get only 13 percent of the normal calcium intake, 8 percent of the normal vitamin C intake and 1.8 percent of the standard B12 intake.
“I took their diets to see what they were eating to see how we can implement nutrients to catch them up, in a sense, with other people,” Gardner said.
According to Johnston, Vitamin A and C deficiencies are major problems in the region. A lack of vitamin A is the leading cause of blindness in children in Sub-Saharan Africa, and other deficiencies lead to health problems like stunted growth, which about 50 percent of the children suffer from. Johnston said their heights are significantly below the norm, indicating severe malnutrition.
Luiz Belo Neto, a senior nutritional science major, is working on a booklet to be distributed to the people; it will include charts outlining the daily nutrient requirements for people of different ages, weights and genders.
Gardner said working on the project has helped him understand hunger.
“As a nutritional major … you hear about nutrition and fats and carbs,” he said. “The only experience I’ve had is with my own diet, an American diet. Their diets are so unbalanced compared to ours. We take so many things for granted. … There is food all around us.”
The gardens will ideally be a successful, lasting system.
“There is a greater chance that people are going to accept it and use it over time,” he said. “The goal is that this will be adopted as part of the society.”
Johnston hopes the idea will spread, reaching to help more people.
“Over the period of the next few years,” Johnston said, “we’d like to see as many as 1,000 gardens being planted within individual families’ homes.”
They’re off to a good start with spreading the program; Johnston also worked on a similar project that provided the same opportunity to orphans in Ecuador.
“They’d never eaten broccoli before,” Johnston said. “They’d never even heard of it.”
But working in any country with limited infrastructure and trying to implement lifestyle changes isn’t easy.
Van Leeuwen said the limited water supply is the main issue threatening the success of the gardens. There is enough water available during the rainy season, but they need a way to capture it so they have a supply for the gardens when the rainy season ends.
They have found one solution, however.
Koins for Kenya just finished a dam that will be the water supply for the gardens. Van Leeuwen helped engineer the project that will now bring water a mile closer to the people.
“It started raining literally the day that it was finished,” he said. “In a matter of a couple of hours we filled our dam to the brim … and captured millions of gallons of water that, up until that day, would run into the next river. … All the water we captured would have been wasted.”
Johnston has confidence the people will succeed in their endeavors with the gardens.
“They are ingenious … and they’ll figure out better ways to do it than we will,” he said.