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Strengthening Food Systems to Address Undernutrition Challenges

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FROM: SHAMIM AHAMED, KAZI MOZAMMEL HOSSEN, FRANCA ROIATTI, DAVID BEXTE – 26. APRIL 2022

By addressing supply chain constraints and food environment weaknesses, the Leadership to Ensure Adequate Nutrition project, which is implemented by a consortium of NGOs, has triggered positive changes that benefit the most disadvantaged communities.

In 2021, the United Nations Food System Summit sent a strong signal that more inclusive, resilient and sustainable food systems are needed to ensure a better tomorrow. However, concepts don’t change the world – actions do. So how can projects contribute to changes in food systems? The Leadership to Ensure Adequate Nutrition (LEAN) project, implemented by a consortium of NGOs, including Helvetas, shows how projects can address various food system outcomes and what it means to look at project outcomes through a food system lens.

The food systems approach at Helvetas

The food systems approach is an important method used to inform Helvetas projects and programs, as indicated in our current organizational strategy 2021-2024. Helevetas’ understanding of “food systems” follows the framework presented in the High Level of Experts on Food Security report that was published in 2020 (see figure 1). Even before 2021, however, such a systemic understanding was guiding Helvetas project design and implementation.

The Leadership to Ensure Adequate Nutrition project

The overall objective of LEAN is to help improve maternal and child nutrition in the Chattogram Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

LEAN is a consortium between United Purpose, Helvetas, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Caritas Bangladesh, Jum Foundation, and the Integrated Development Foundation. Since 2018, LEAN has been aiming to break the perpetual cycle of undernutrition in rural areas of 18 sub-districts of three hill districts, and targets 82,000 pregnant and lactating women, 100,000 children under five years and 100,000 adolescent girls from 210,000 rural households.

Food systems challenges and LEAN responses

One of the first obstacles to positive changes in local food systems is a lack of or ineffective nutrition governance. LEAN is promoting and strengthening such governance, for example, by facilitating multi-stakeholder platforms (MSP) at the district and sub-district levels and working closely with public-sector entities and representatives on improving nutrition-sensitive programming.

Another challenge identified at the initial stages of the project is the weak nutrition knowledge in the communities. To raise awareness on healthy and sustainable diets and contribute to consumer behaviour change, LEAN organises sensitization events at newly established Women Business Centers and school-based interventions. Thanks to these activities, community members and adolescents have become more aware of the importance of consuming a healthy and sustainable diet, and are developing a positive attitude towards this.

A sparsely populated and geographically difficult environment also hampers access to supply chain services and inputs. Farmers do not have easy access to quality seed, fertilizers, or pesticides and farming methods, which are essential to increase productivity. They also face problems related to storage, collection mechanisms, grading and packaging, and transportation. Trained local service providers can provide better access to services and support farmers in applying innovative, nutrition-sensitive agricultural practices.

The Women Business Centers also offer services and sell nutritious food items, thus contributing to improved local diets. Another important activity to strengthen local supply chains has been the establishment of collection centers which connect producers with other supply chain actors.

Best practices and lessons learned

The multifunctionality of the Women Business Centers – both in providing services and raising awareness – has shown very good results and has helped the centers to establish themselves as an important actor in the food system. The model of training local service providers has also worked well. Since local service providers come from the community they serve, they can more easily anticipate local needs and enjoy a good reputation that facilitates their interventions.

In the initial stage, the participation of women was low due to very strong social barriers. However, an in-depth dialogue with local leaders involving karbaries (village), headmen (union level), religious leaders, and union council members convinced the community of the importance of women’s involvement, and their participation subsequently increased.

A fruitful collaboration

As a multi-dimensional food and nutrition security project, LEAN addresses multiple entry points for food system transformation. By working in a multi-stakeholder partnership, recognizing the complex nature of food systems, and selecting the entry points with the greatest leverage and potential to change, the situation has helped to trigger positive changes in the food system to the benefit of disadvantaged populations.

This article was originally published in the April edition of the International Journal for Rural Development. Author Shamim Ahamed is the Deputy Country Director for Helvetas Bangladesh; Kazi Mozammel Hossen is the Technical Coordinator for the LEAN project and staff at Helvetas Bangladesh; Franca Roiatti is Helvetas' Communications Advisor; and David Bexte is Helvetas' Advisor for Nutrition Sensitive Agriculture and Food Systems.