How a Rye project is battling food insecurity in Vietnam

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By Sarah Tomlinson

Over 2,500 Vietnamese children in preschools have received fortified instant porridge as part of a shared initiative between Ryerson’s Centre for Studies in Food Security (CSFS) and Vietnam’s National Institute of Nutrition (NIN).

From November 2015 to June 2018, the CSFS has partnered with Vietnam on Ecosun, a project designed to reduce levels of chronic malnutrition among children in three provinces in northern Vietnam: Lào Cai, Lai Châu and Hà Giang. 

According to CSFS director Cecilia Rocha, focusing on the development of fortified complementary foods (FCF) from local crops for children aged six months to five years was a priority of Ecosun. 

FCFs are small sachets of micronutrient supplements to be added to a child’s food immediately before consumption to improve their micronutrient intake, according to an article by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. 

“An estimated 780,000 children in Vietnam are malnourished” 

Vietnam’s rural populations have continued to face challenges in accessing agricultural land and dealing with issues of poverty. Despite making progress in improving human capital, undernutrition is still a challenge, UNICEF Vietnam states. 

An estimated 780,000 children in Vietnam are malnourished and 16 per cent are underweight, according to the Ecosun website. In addition, Rocha said about “35 per cent of children in each of the three provinces are stunting.” 

Food insecurity in Vietnam has continued to be the forefront goal of organizations such as UNICEF, the Sustainable Development Fund (SDF) who has partnered with the United Nations to advocate for Vietnamese communities. 

Rocha, who is also a professor and former director at Ryerson’s School of Nutrition, has worked on food security projects in Brazil, where she was born.

“I am a strong believer of south-south exchanges. Countries can learn from each other. I thought my previous experience could also help in this project in Vietnam,” she said. 

In an email to The Eyeopener, Rocha said the idea for the project, Ecosun, came from Dr. Nguyen Huy, director of the nutrition education program at NIN, who approached the CSFS to help develop the project.

Matthew Brown is an associate researcher at CSFS and a research fellow with Ecosun. Brown told The Eye that farmers in Vietnam have received training from NIN’s agricultural team. 

“All you have to do is document what type of fertilizer is used [and the amount of] fertilizer per acre. We had to do water tests to look at heavy metal content in the ground and the amount of phosphates,” he said. 

In addition, Brown said the project increased profits of local farmers. “They could sell  their products for 30 to 50 per cent higher than they would have got just because they could guarantee the quality of their product, whereas if they just go and sell it in the market, nobody cares,” he said.  

In addition, Brown said one big problem is that mothers are unaware that their kids are malnourished because they compare their children to the others in the village.  

“If you just look at the kids in the village, they’re all the same size but if you compare that village with a different village, then it’s quite staggering,” said Brown. 

According to Rocha, a small-scale food processing plant was opened in Lào Cai in November 2017 where two FCF were developed using its crops. 

“Ecosun…provided agricultural training…to 450 women farmers”

“[The processing plant] has a daily production capacity of 300 kilograms of instant rice porridge,” stated Rocha. It can also produce 10,000-12,000 of powder sachets by processing 60 kilograms  of vegetables per hour.

The impact on Vietnam 

Rocha said that Ninfood, a subsidiary of NIN, developed three lines of products under Ecosun: fortified instant porridge, freeze-dried vegetable powders and protein and lipid sachets made from milk protein and soybean oil.

The products were processed in local facilities,  and distributed with the support of local health units and commercial shops, in order to transform the communities economy and reduce poverty rates. 

“Often a major hurdle in successful public food procurement strategies is the inadequate capacity of smallholder farmers to meet demand with quality products in sufficient quantities,” Rocha stated. 

“In the case of the Ecosun project, vegetables to be used in the formulation of the FCF products have to be produced under strict good agricultural practices.”

Rocha also stated that Ecosun has helped address malnutrition through counselling sessions with mothers.

Over 14,000 children under the age of two and their mothers received infant and young child feeding counselling sessions, which teach mothers about nutrition and how to prepare NIN’s Ecosun product line, according to a Ryerson Today article. 

“The Ecosun project provided agricultural training on good agricultural practices to 450 women farmers in nine communes located in the three provinces,” said Rocha. She said this helped increase local employment, as well as improving agricultural practices among local women farmers.

“This project continued to enhance Ryerson’s international reputation as a centre of excellence for research and education in the area of food security,” said Rocha. 

CSFS plans to release a paper on the project’s impact on malnutrition and on the public-private partnership model that was adopted this year.

“The whole team actually went way out of their way to try and do a good job of doing cutting edge nutrition research…That showed a lot of grace and compassion,” said Brown.  

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