A little pile of disrupted sand was the giveaway sign in a field of low-growing brush and greens. As soon as Khoun saw it, he grabbed a stick and started to dig, scattering sand until he found the prize — one cricket.
The cricket, along with any others Khoun or his friends find, will be fried with salt, adding protein to tonight’s dinner.
In Phonehome, a village in the rural district of Tha Thom in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), rice is the primary food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As part of a food security and health initiative supported by MCC through its account with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, MCC and Lao government nutrition educators are working with children and adults in 10 of the poorest villages in Tha Thom to emphasize the importance of a balanced diet and to encourage people to use foods that grow naturally.
They advise children and adults to remember the importance of using food from the forest, fields and streams. Long part of the local diet, these crickets, freshwater crabs, frogs, snails and rodents provide free protein, necessary to good nutrition but often lacking in rice-based meals.
“Every single time they cook for their children, they need to think about protein . . . ”
“One of the things we focus on with the villagers is to realize that every single time they cook for their children they need to think about protein and the vitamins that come from fruits and vegetables, in addition to the carbohydrates in rice,” says Bouachan Thanavanh, nutrition project officer for MCC Lao PDR.
Fourth and fifth graders often are involved in cooking and cleaning at home, especially when their parents are working in the field, so Thanavanh encourages them to plan their meals too. “If you are having snails and fish meat, then add vegetables and bananas,” she tells them. School programs give children experience in planting fruit trees and gardening.
Malnutrition rates of children less than 5 years old in this area were estimated at about 23 percent, based on a growth assessment done at the beginning of the project. In an area where meat is too expensive for families to buy often, if at all, teachers offer advice on how to incorporate more affordable sources of protein.
Khem, a pregnant mother with a young daughter, says she now follows the nutrition teacher’s cooking demonstration of adding eggs and vegetables to rice soup. Before she took the class she only cooked plain rice soup for her daughter, she said.
Parents learn to monitor their children’s growth and to be aware of the extra nutritional needs of pregnant women. And the program encourages breastfeeding exclusively for children under six months, instead of starting infants on the traditional mixture of mashed grilled rice, honey and sugar.