GOOD

How Nutrition Programs Can Improve Literacy in Afghanistan

Nutritional investment in Afghanistan aims to boost literacy as well as agriculture. #projectliteracy

Giving soymilk to young students in Afghanistan. Image courtesy Nutrition & Education International.

Education is a top priority in postwar Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the Afghan government and international partners have been working hard to open schools and raise student enrollment rates, especially among girls. Millions of children and youth have gained access to educational opportunities, but many still lack basic resources. Teachers, school buildings, and textbooks are all in short supply—and so is food, the fuel needed to power the human brain.


Malnutrition is a widespread problem in Afghanistan. Roughly a third of the country’s population is falling short of its daily calorie needs. Nearly 20 percent of its people aren’t getting enough protein. And more than 40 percent of its children are “stunted,” or small for their age.

That’s one of the highest rates of childhood stunting in the world—and it spells trouble for brain health and learning. Studies have linked childhood stunting to poor cognitive development and educational achievement, as well as lower earning power later in life. Risk factors for stunting can set in before a child is even born.

“A malnourished mother has a higher risk of delivering a fetus that is malnourished, small for its gestational age, and sometimes even premature,” explains child-health expert Zulfiqar Bhutta, who recently coauthored a paper in The Lancet calling for greater nutritional investment in Afghanistan. “By virtue of this handicap, these babies often have issues with lifelong learning.”

To help tackle hunger, Bhutta and his coauthors emphasize the importance of taking a “multisectoral” approach—one that addresses the underlying causes of food insecurity.

That’s exactly what one nonprofit organization, Nutrition & Education International, has been doing. Over the past decade, NEI has worked closely with local government agencies, universities, and the United Nations’ World Food Programme to promote soybean cultivation and nourishment in Afghanistan.

Soybeans are the most economical source of high-quality protein, explains Peter Williams, NEI’s director of operations. They are also a good source of calories, iron, zinc, and other brain-friendly nutrients.

Through its comprehensive approach, NEI is helping to cultivate education and employment opportunities, alongside soybeans. It has provided soybean seeds and training to more than 70,000 farmers, established seven soy-processing facilities, and distributed humanitarian aid in the tasty form of soymilk and locally baked soy-flour cookies.

Making soy flour. Image courtesy Nutrition & Education International.

By 2023, NEI hopes to eradicate protein malnutrition across the country by helping Afghan farmers produce 300,000 metric tons of soybeans. That’s no small order—especially since soy isn’t a traditional part of the Afghan landscape or diet.

Other efforts to establish a soybean industry in Afghanistan have faced criticism. For example, last year the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a scathing report on the Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Initiative, a multimillion-dollar project overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Plagued by security risks, staff turnover, crop failures, and soybean shortages, that USDA-backed project “has largely been a flop,” claims CPI. Its report suggests that Afghanistan’s climate is ill suited to soybean cultivation—and Afghans don’t like the taste of soy products.

But food biochemist Steven Kwon, NEI’s founder, tells a different story. He says soybeans are growing well in 23 out of 34 Afghan provinces, and many families are incorporating soy into their diets.

“The first three years, we had a very hard time,” he admits. “It’s a new experience, and many farmers didn’t want to try to grow soybeans because the livelihood of 10 family members depended on what was coming out of a half-acre of land.”

But over time, demand for soy has grown. More farmers are planting it, and housewives and commercial bakers are adding soy products to traditional dishes—like wheat-based naan bread—for an added punch of protein.

Kwon credits this progress to three key strategies:

“Number one is, work with the government: We cannot have a successful nutritional intervention for the nation without government support. Number two is, train the trainers: When we train local agronomists and home economists, they can go to the villages and teach people about the benefits of soy. And number three is, show our respect to these communities.”

From taste tests and focus groups to hands-on training, NEI has engaged local community members every step of the way. It has partnered with local researchers to identify soybean strains that grow well in different parts of the country. And it has used a wide variety of marketing materials and methods to teach people how to grow, process, and cook with soy.

“We have to be creative,” says Kwon. “When we teach people who can read and write, we use written communication with explanation and demonstration. But for illiterate people, we are using a lot of pictures and more demonstration.”

One of the organization’s newest initiatives targets high-school-age youth, while promoting agricultural, business, and civic skills.

“We’re teaching them how to plant wheat as a first crop and soybean as a second crop for nutritional nourishment,” explains Kwon. “Because soybean is also an economical source of protein for animal feed, we’re also teaching them how to conduct home poultry businesses to help those in need come out of poverty and hunger in self-reliant ways.”

Eventually, NEI wants to put itself out of business: Its ultimate goal is to create a self-sustaining soy industry, run by Afghans for Afghans. It hopes its training efforts will help feed the country’s economic and social development, as well as its people. Soybeans may give Afghan children and other community members the nutrients they need to learn and thrive.

Articles
Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less
Health