LIMA, October 22, 2009. - Peru’s fight against child malnutrition seems to have gained a new powerful, albeit unusual, ally.
It’s neither a person nor activist group fighting to get bread on the table of poor families. It’s actually a meal. Call it ‘Super Spaghetti’, after a foody super hero defending people’s rights to a nutritious meal, while relying on such unique nutritional powers that experts think it’s the ideal recipe to bring down the enemies of nutrition.
This nutrient supercharged spaghetti dish is a two-color sauce quinoa pasta with roasted wild guinea pig that was awarded the top prize at the World Bank-sponsored ‘Nutritious and Tasty Food from my Town’ contest in the Peruvian Andes. The dish came on top of the competition thanks to its rich iron content –a must in kids’ nutrition- and wide range of vegetables, that made it a balanced and nutritious meal, according to the contest judges.
Chefs and local moms Gania Alarcon and Marta Mezares, both from Andahuaylas in the central Andes, point out that the meal can spread its benefits to both pregnant women and small kids. Because it is wholly made of quinoa it’s twice as nutritious as a bowl of rice, while it holds healing properties “against osteoporosis and breast cancer”, say Alarcon and Mezares.
Not by coincidence, the competition underscored the importance of tasty and nutritious food for mothers and children. Chronic malnutrition accounts partially for the high mortality and low learning abilities found among poor children. As a result, over the longer term, poverty is transmitted from one generation to the next. According to Government data, 21 of every 100 children born in Peru live in a state of chronic malnutrition. The consequential lower learning capacities prevent them from accomplishing their full intellectual and physical potential.
For the past three years, the World Bank has focused on making this issue more visible in Peru.
“Part of what happens is that in the Andean mountains, for instance, there is a widespread perception that chubby children are in good health or that children from indigenous communities are just shorter. In fact, there is no scientific evidence to prove that. They are all malnourished, but neither their mothers nor the communities seem to realize this, and obviously society ignores the problem”, explains Omar Arias, the World Bank’s Sector Leader for Human Development in Andean countries.
Additionally, the World Bank lends its technical assistance to the Peruvian conditional cash transfer program JUNTOS, which provides a steady income to poor parents on condition that kids are sent to school, go to the doctor’s and get a nutritious meal. JUNTOS reaches 638 districts in 14 regions in Peru, benefiting almost half a million families.
Gania and Marta are convinced that their concoction can genuinely help fight malnutrition in Peru, especially in rural areas, as powerful quinoa is a key ingredient and its rich flavors are likely to win kid’s palates. Quinoa is an original grain from the Andes and was a main staple in the ancient Inca diet. It grows above 3500 meters of altitude, with Peru and Bolivia as the two largest Latin American producing countries. Its high nutritional value (16.2% protein content compared to 7.5% for rice and 14% for wheat) make it an invaluable crop. It is also a major source of starch, sugar, fibers, minerals and vitamins.
In their new version of the traditional quinoa dish, they added two sauces, a yellow squash sauce and a green and water crest one. Both were seasoned with basil, tomato paste, paprika and cumin. To make the dish even more nutritional, they serve it with fried guinea pig previously coated in a mix of corn flower and physalis nectar.
"A nutritious preparation must include animal products or ingredients rich in iron and must be served with orange, red, yellow and dark green leafy vegetables and/or fruits. For instance, the wining dish, Quinoa pasta two-color sauce and roasted guinea pig, has an animal original product that contains ten times more iron than, for example, spinach. This is very important, especially for children who need iron in order to grow up and develop well and for pregnant women in order to have a healthy baby and avoid anemia", explained Maria Ines Sanchez, a nutritionist and head of CERES NUTRIR.
With over 200 participants from Andahuaylas in Apurimac and Angaraes in Huancavelica, the contest was organized jointly by JUNTOS, Peru’s National Program for Direct Support to Poor People, the Ministry of Health’s General Directorate for Health Promotion, the World Bank, the Peruvian Gastronomy Association (APEGA) and its members, the Huancavelica and Apurímac regional (state) governments and the provincial governments of Angaraes and Andahuaylas; with technical support from the CERES NUTRIR team.
The range of dishes submitted to the jury’s evaluation shows that training and sharing with homemakers new ways to cook food will help them significantly improve their families’ diets. Entries included peeled green lima beans in Andean mint sauce, guinea pig pot roast with vegetables, alfalfa and passion fruit sherbet, quinoa spicy stew and trout, chicken liver puree with potatoes, spicy quinoa stew with guinea pig, pureed squash with amaranth and liver with potatoes, trout and tree-bean sauté, wheat main dish, quinoa with guinea pig and Andean lupine, earthen stove baked meats and vegetables and others.
Delia Juarez Castillo, a nutritionist from Apurimac’s Health Department and a jury member, said this was the first typical food contest having simultaneously addressed nutritional and human capital development issues.
A balanced mother and child diet is key for development. It has been scientifically proven that 50% of the child’s future growth is decided during pregnancy. Pregnant mothers must be in top nutritional, psychological and physical health to deliver babies with full intellectual and learning potential. Children develop 35% of their brain capacity from birth until 3 years of age, simultaneously with other body organs.
As far as country development, a skilled labor force depends on sound nutrition, explained the World Bank’s Arias.
“If Peru wants to stay on the path to grow, it must not rely solely on mineral or asparagus exports. It has to shift to exporting higher value added products that require a more sophisticated labor force. A healthier population is also a more skilled population, with better professionals”.
Milagro Nuñez Rivera, Executive Director of the JUNTOS Poor People Support Program, said the ‘Tasty Nutritious Food from my Town’ contest has been a powerful learning experience.
“This has been the best lesson the Program has learned in its four years of existence. A new belief in the people and that capacity building is possible drawing on women’s knowledge and that we at JUNTOS, as an organization, will succeed only if we adapt, become more creative, place ourselves in poor people’s shoes, talk in a way they will understand us, focus on communication, and look beyond what we have already learned”, Nuñez said.
After accepting their awards and concluding an internship at the "Le Cordon Bleu" cooking school in Lima, the winners will go back to their home towns to share their wonderful recipes.