We are presently at a challenging time in history as the world is fighting a catastrophic pandemic- the coronavirus. As we take the necessary precautions as advised by the ministry of health, food remains the closest ally in a time of need. The advice we can read everywhere also includes starting or maintaining a balanced diet, yet only a few really understand the true meaning of the word. For some, unfortunately, balanced diets are a privilege only the ‘rich’ can afford. But everyone should know, eating well does not have to be expensive, it is rather a journey that requires commitment.
To provide the body with all the nutrients it requires for optimum health and well-being, one needs to eat a well-balanced diet. A plate with this kind of diet has diverse foods that are rich in carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. Carbohydrates are energy-giving foods and provide the body with energy to perform and undertake tasks. Sources include maize, wheat, sorghum, millet, cassava, and yams. Proteins build the body and repair the body in case of an illness or injury. Animal sources include beef, lamb, pork, fish, seafood, and poultry, while plant sources include mushrooms, beans, peas, green grams, soy, and nuts. Healthy fats help the body build cells and make hormones, and the best sources are liquid vegetable oils (e.g. coconut, olive oil) and fish oils. Vitamins and minerals are abundant in fruits and vegetables in various categories and proportions and improve immunity, organ functions, and maintenance of various body processes.
Inadequate intake of nutrients leads to nutrient deficiency, which weakens the body’s ability to fight infections. Malnutrition is one of the major public health problems in sub-Saharan African countries like Kenya. It is extreme among the poor in both urban and rural settings, particularly in marginalized counties. While malnutrition is often known for carbohydrate and protein deficiency, micronutrient deficiency, also known as hidden hunger is a subtle yet prevalent problem. Anemia is the most common and significant problem that comes from the deficiency of iron. According to the WHO, the global prevalence for the general population is 24.8%, affecting 1620 million people! It affects more women than men due to monthly blood losses and diet inadequacies.
Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables especially during this period will improve immunity and make it easier to fight the coronavirus and to improve micronutrient problems. A small kitchen garden, implemented at home, can provide a household with a constant supply of fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs to sustain their needs, boost their immune system and prepare them better during this difficult time.
Food safety is another issue that should be considered throughout this entire period and afterward. Poor hygiene is a challenge in Kenya’s agriculture supply chain particularly during transportation and sale. Street vendors who sell other commodities such as fish and bread often use unsafe, overused frying oil and unhygienic packaging. This puts consumers at risk of agents (e.g. bacteria such as E. coli) that could introduce diseases in the body. Pesticide residues affect food safety in many ways causing various chronic health effects (like immune suppression, cancer, mutagenicity just to name a few). A 2018 KEPHIS study analyzed 1139 food samples including kale, capsicum and peas, almost half of them (46.3%) had pesticide residues and 11% exceeded the allowed levels. Farming with less pesticides and regular monitoring is the only way out of this problem.
Vegetables grown under certain conditions in urban areas can also show high levels of heavy metals, like lead, cadmium or mercury. A study in Dagoretti in 2017 showed high levels of mercury and lead in vegetables grown on a dumpsite and low levels of essential minerals such as iron.
Aflatoxin contamination in milk, nuts and maize is another issues when we talk about food safety. Aflatoxins can develop in maize and nuts, due to improper storage under humid conditions as fungi can develop. The toxins in maize, are taken up by the cows, eating the maize, and can be transferred to milk. Aflatoxin contamination is a serious issue for the health of Kenyan citizens as it causes liver cancer, stunt growth in children and suppresses the immune system, which is much needed during this time.
To be in a better position to avert these challenges, it will be smart to embrace urban gardening and to promote diversifying food systems. No matter the socio-economic status, gardening will give urban households an opportunity to grow food that is free from toxic chemicals and to provide for all their dietary needs. Instead of eating whatever is available at the markets, gardening will give households the independence to choose local, seasonal, fresh, diverse and healthy food.