In 2005, as an undergraduate student in the University of Georgia’s dietetics and consumer foods program, Janice Giddens wrote an essay as part of her application to the International Agriculture Certificate program:
“Teaching people the importance of growing indigenous and nutritious foods is as important as teaching them why they should consume them. This program will give me the ability to do this.”
For the past year, the work Giddens described in that essay has been part of her daily life as she develops nutritional programs for families in Rwanda as a fellow with Gardens for Health International.
Since 2007, Gardens for Health has partnered with the Rwandan government to address malnutrition using the premise, “What if doctors could prescribe seeds?” to undergird a program that addresses malnutrition by helping caregivers design and plant home gardens that promote both crop and diet biodiversity.
Along with the gardens, families receive health trainings, developed and presented by their peers, that are designed to address the many factors that can make it difficult to feed their children a wholesome diet. The program has shown huge success, with 68 percent of families reporting they are eating a “high dietary-diversity diet” one year after enrolling in the program.
Giddens, however, was hired for a new project — preventing childhood malnutrition before it ever begins by targeting the health and nutrition of pregnant women.
“According to the 2016 Global Nutrition Report, 30 percent of children globally are stunted or wasted,” Giddens said. “By comparison, the most recent Demographic and Health Survey on Rwanda indicates that approximately 40 percent of children under the age of 5 are stunted or wasted.”
The goal of Gardens for Health’s new Antenatal Care Program is to intervene during the 1,000 days between conception and a child’s second birthday, the time research has shown when nutrition plays the most important role in a child’s development and health.
With support from the Clinton Global Initiative, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation and Gardens for Health, Giddens developed the nutritional curricula for the project, training local health workers to provide the information and monitoring and evaluating its outcomes.
Via email, Giddens reported that two cohorts, totaling 362 pregnant women, graduated from the project as of December 2016. The program is being offered at four health centers located in Rwanda’s Gasabo district.
“The program is going really well, and we’re getting great feedback from our participants as well as our field educators,” Giddens said. “One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is that, in general, women in Rwanda do not tell people they are pregnant until sometime in the second trimester.”
In regards to the curricula, Giddens said that the biggest challenge comes from food safety recommendations.
“Most people make a big pot of food and eat it over the course of a day or two. Of course, it is left out at room temperature because refrigeration is not an option,” she said. “This area is going to require a lot of time and energy to make the big cultural shift necessary for people to make this behavior change. But, it is worth the investment because foodborne illness has so many negative consequences that are exacerbated in vulnerable populations.”
In addition to the Antenatal Care Program, Giddens also managed another project that involved three community groups — people living with HIV/AIDS, community health workers and mothers of children with malnutrition — in cultivating 2.5 hectares of farmland.
“We’ve constructed a sizable demonstration garden that has crop-specific, nutrition-focused signage,” she said. “We are constructing an educational path that contains signs providing nutritional messages targeting pregnant women and the mothers of young children. The path allows participants to see the food growing and to learn about its specific nutrient benefits. The health center will use this space to enhance the education they provide in their weekly antenatal care classes.”
Because both the farmland and the garden are planted with crops that the participants may not be familiar with growing, Giddens also helped with agricultural training programs to ensure the participants, community health workers and the health center staff know how to successfully grow the crops and are able to teach others, too.
“There is a lot going on with this project, but it’s been a lot of fun to use both my agriculture and health background to design a project that is so strongly focused on incorporating both of these areas,” Giddens said.