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New food for better health: Introducing orange sweet potato to Uttar Pradesh

On a bright, windy morning in the rural district of
Maharajganj, Sunita Devi listens for the crackling of cumin seeds in hot
mustard oil, then adds a heap of chopped onions and garlic to the pan, smiling
as they begin to sizzle and brown. She is trying out a new recipe, using a
vegetable that—up until a few months ago—she had never heard of, and up until
now, has never prepared. That vegetable is the orange sweet potato, one of many
biofortified foods showing great promise for use in nutrition interventions to
reduce micronutrient deficiencies in developing regions. In the Indian state of
Uttar Pradesh, just over half of all children under age five have vitamin A
levels too low to meet the needs of their growing bodies, and many more are at
risk of deficiency. By introducing orange sweet potato—rich in beta-carotene—TCI-TARINA
is hoping to diversify production of farmers while also increasing essential
micronutrients in the diets of people like Sunita Devi and her three children.

While the white sweet potato has a minor place in Indian
culture as a food used in religious ceremonies, most Indians in rural Uttar
Pradesh have never heard of an orange variety, let alone considered growing it for
their personal consumption. This project, working to change that, is called “Orange-fleshed
Sweet Potato for Nutrition in Uttar Pradesh”, or “ON-UP.” As part of ON-UP,
farmers learn and develop regionally-appropriate methods for growing orange
sweet potato through a series of Farmer Field Schools, which use participatory
and experiment-based methods to teach concepts of soil health and integrated
pest management. In addition, nutrition events are hosted in villages to
communicate the health benefits of consuming the tubers, and perhaps just as
important, how to prepare and consume this vegetable that most people
have never seen before.

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Women and children attending a nutrition event in their village.

As the TCI Scholar responsible for implementing the ON-UP
project, I have been working with the ON-UP team to organize these events introducing
communities to the importance of vitamin A and how a diversified diet including
orange sweet potato can help reduce the risk of vitamin A deficiency in adults
and children. This March, we hosted a main event of the project: a
cooking-show-style recipe competition, where volunteers prepared an array of
dishes featuring the orange sweet potato. We worked with enthusiastic women in
each village to develop the recipes based on a few criteria: the dishes had to
be easy to prepare, use no expensive or hard-to-find ingredients, and use the
sweet potato in a nutritionally beneficial way. When beta-carotene, the vitamin
A precursor, is exposed to high or prolonged heat such as drying or deep
frying, it breaks down and is no longer biologically active. On the other hand,
if the vegetable is eaten raw, the molecules remain trapped in the plant cells
and cannot be absorbed by the body. Because of this, we want to encourage people
to cook sweet potato gently until just soft, such as by steaming, boiling, or
roasting. It is also important to consume the vegetable with some oil or fat,
as vitamin A is fat soluble. These requirements ensured that the recipes we
promoted were both feasible for women to prepare, and would maximize the
nutritional benefit of consuming orange sweet potato.

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Woman volunteer presenting a dish made with orange sweet potato during a recipe competition.

We met a variety of challenges when hosting this event, but still
managed to garner significant interest and excitement about the crop that many
of the participants had already planted in their fields and kitchen gardens, thanks
to the agricultural component of the project. The biggest challenges we faced
in hosting our event were cultural. In a few villages, there is a tradition of
daughters-in-law not being permitted to leave their house. For these villages,
we had to approach individual households and seek permission from the husband
or mother-in-law for the woman to attend, but even then, many daughters-in-law
feared they would fall behind on their household work and declined to attend.
The mothers-in-law attended our event in these villages, and we tried to stress
the importance that they share the information with others in their household.
In another village, people were discriminatory based on caste, and informed us
that they would refuse to eat any foods prepared by a lower-caste volunteer.
This was a tricky situation; we felt uncomfortable screening our volunteer
selection based on caste. As it turned out, our original lower-caste volunteer
had to visit a sick relative on the week of our event, and a higher-caste woman
came forward to volunteer as a chef. This incident highlights the strong role
that caste still plays in some villages and how it can impede access to
beneficial programs such as ours. This is doubly detrimental since low caste families
are more likely to have poor diets and micronutrient deficiencies from historic
social and economic discrimination.

Despite these challenges, there were notable successes as
well. In one village, we had a huge turnout, with over 100 men, women, and
children in attendance. At this event, we were also honored to have in
attendance both the Health and Nutrition Counselor from a local hospital and a Program
Officer for the Child Development Program (CDP), who is responsible for
overseeing the Anganwadi (child health) centers in the block. At another event,
after we gave out badges to our volunteer chefs, a dance party broke out, and a
group of older women improvised lyrics to a traditional song, singing about the
benefits of orange sweet potato that they had just learned. Our team joined in,
and we celebrated the opportunities for better health that orange sweet potato is
providing this community.

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Children enthusiastic about trying orange sweet potato for the first time.

Taking feedback from event attendants, we found that we had
left a positive impression. People were drawn to our events by their curiosity
for why there was a tent and music set up, and when they learned that orange
sweet potato was being prepared, they became excited to taste dishes made with
the same vegetable that had been promoted in their village as a crop. While not
everyone remembered all the health benefits of orange sweet potato or vitamin
A, nearly everyone expounded on how tasty the dishes had been, and were happy
to report that they now know how to prepare orange sweet potato in a variety of
ways. We were successful in communicating that sweet potato should not be eaten
raw, and we found that after the event, people who had chosen not to grow
orange sweet potato this season were curious to know if it would be available again
and how they could learn to grow it. We encouraged these people to seek vines
from their friends and neighbors for next season.

Moving forward, we have many more events to host in these
villages, and what we learned from the recipe competition will be useful in
deciding how we structure these events and whom we target with the messages. We
will be engaging men in discussion-based programs on the important role they
play in the health of their family, and ensuring that, as primary information
providers for their wives, they have up-to-date and correct knowledge on infant
and child nutrition. We will also conduct shorter, small-group meetings with
daughters-in-law, so they will be both permitted and able to attend. We are
hopeful that these communities will continue to welcome this new orange food
onto their plates, and that the ON-UP project will be a catalyst for better
health and nutrition in Uttar Pradesh.

By Kathryn Merckel

Kathryn Merckel (krm246@cornell.edu) is a PhD student and a Tata-Cornell Scholar in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Her research focuses on promoting biofortified and nutrient-rich crops to address micronutrient deficiencies.