I went to Achham in December 2010 when I saw many positive as well as negative changes in the villages, especially in terms of people’s food and nutrition habits. In Chanidka village, among the children I saw was a 3-year girl. She was malnourished. "Your child seems very small for her age, what does she eat?" I asked her mother. She was breastfeeding the baby.
“Yes she is small and she does not eat anything except noodles and biscuits,” the mother answered. I asked her if she had lentils or flour at her house. She said she did. Does she have cows and milk? Yes, she does. Does she grow vegetables? Yes.
"So, what is the problem, why don't you give your child rice and dal, vegetables and milk?" I asked. The mother told me, “But why? Chow-chow is a good food and it has a lot of nutrition. Why give the child other food?”
We had failed to disseminate proper information about what is nutrition. The result was many mothers like this one in Acham saw nutrients in noodles.
The knowledge, passed down from generation to generation about local lentil, soybean, millet, and buckwheat, seems to have been erased in a few decades through relentless misinformation through advertising.
“I wonder why our pediatricians do not do something about wrong advertisements on the junk foods showing them as good for children,” Dr. Neelam Adhikari , a renowned child specialist told me. “I see many children with malnutrition as well as obese children consume those foodstuffs. In my clinic, every day, at least four children with malnutrition are brought by their parents who do not understand that those foods are very harmful. I try to explain the dangers to them but we don’t have enough time to convince them.”
The food industry, TV ads and silent health workers and policy makers have contributed to the promotion of the idea that expensive, processed, foods in colorful foil packs, are healthier than easily available home foods. Even in rural areas, where we may not have simple pain killers or similar medicines, those colorful ads and junk foods are easily available. Children become malnourished after consuming them. They fall ill and then parents demand expensive bottled vitamins and tonics for their children from health workers in the villages as well as in urban areas.
"There is absolutely no evidence that supplemental vitamins are good for growing children," says Ramesh Kant Adhikari. He has been advocating for the home made foods for the children for a long time and feels that health workers are also to blame as instead of taking the time to explain parents, they prescribe some food supplements and expensive vitamins, even when the child doesn't need them. Health workers find it tedious to explain to parents that all they need is enough carbohydrate, vitamins, and proteins-all available in the traditional Nepali diet.
Dr. Adhikari is one of the authors of Child Nutrition and Health, a book full of recipes made from local Nepali food items rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins like surbottam pitho, jaulo, millet porridges, roti, rice, and dal. But this information has not been disseminated to the villages.
All that the government does from time to time is to distribute some food packets to combat malnutrition. But with the food packets, there is no information about how one can prepare nutritious food from what is available at home. Our TV program do not talk about this, our radio programs are busy with songs and entertainment. Someone wants to talk about these issues on the radio, there is no time slot for that.
Children are easily influenced by TV commercials. Be they in Kathmandu or Achham, they demand what is shown on TV. Parents have to oblige when their kids blackmail them with tears.
I remember, ten years ago, my daughter used to take chapatti and potato as lunch for school. But one day she came back with tears in her eyes and told me “from tomorrow, I am not going to take those chapatti and potato. My friends teased me saying that the food was dirty. They bring chou chou and cheese balls for lunch?”
It took a long time to make my daughter understand that it was her friends who were eating junk food, that eating wholesome home food was nothing to feel ashamed of. It took a lot of effort and time for me to show her various pictures of children who consumed junk foods and got ill.
Of course, it is not an easy task to make children understand why junk food is bad for them. But should we not give our children a healthy life? After all, the packed foods are known to have links with heart problem, diabetics, and cancer. Parents need to choose.