In the communes of Dai Hung and Tam Phu in Quang Nam province, Central Vietnam, a partnership between Food Plant Solutions and AOG World Relief has created enthusiasm and support for school gardening as an avenue for improving nutritional status - lessening the strain on school budgets, and providing educational and training tools for school children and staff. An additional benefit of this initiative is the dispersal of knowledge and widespread adoption of home gardening by families and communities both directly and indirectly affected by the project, improving food security and allowing children to have a more consistent intake of nutritious, locally grown plants.
“Four biodiverse vegetables were prioritized for inclusion in the school gardens;
These plants were taken from the Food Plant Solutions field guide and utilized by AOG World Relief for inclusion in the gardening and nutrition education programme because they are well-suited to the local environment, grow easily in the tropical climate, possess significant nutritional value, are easy to prepare, and the children are happy to eat them as part of soups and rice porridge (the staple food for children in Vietnam).
Largely reliant on small-scale farming, an estimated annual income of between 8 million and 12 million VND (AUD$400-$600) has left nutrition priorities at the bottom of the list for families in Tam Phu and Dai Hung, as there is barely enough income to afford survival necessities let alone fresh produce. Such life realities have impacted heavily on parents, who are predisposed to respiratory illness, high blood pressure, stomach upset and various nutrient deficiencies. As a result of the poverty cycle, child malnutrition rates of 11.1% and 19.8% have been found in Tam Phu and Dai Hung kindergartens, respectively. Malnutrition not only affects the physical growth and development of the younger generation, but also their ability to learn, attend and focus at school, and participate in community life. Schools also struggle to provide students with nutritious meals while keeping costs within a tight budget. Due to the perceived high cost yet poor quality of the school meal plan by parents, many children travel home to eat and then travel late back to school or do not return, reducing the parents’ ability to work and child’s ability to learn.
AOG World Relief Vietnam, a non-governmental organization that uses participatory approaches to empower Vietnamese communities, has partnered with Food Plant Solutions to help tackle many of the nutrition and food security obstacles communities like Dai Hung and Tam Phu are currently facing. Through this approach, the community members themselves develop action plans to mobilize their own assets and resources and achieve a desired goal such as community development, child and youth advocacy, or life skills training. Due to the political structure of Vietnam, AOG World Relief Vietnam is assigned a government partner (department) to work alongside them and guide activities such as selecting and contacting appropriate stakeholders and community members.
The chosen governmental partner - the Department of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs (DOLISA) - essentially cares for newborns right through to elderly members of society. Furthermore, AOG World Relief Vietnam liaises with the People’s Committee (the main governing body of Vietnam) at a district and commune level as required.Following conversations and referrals from DOLISA and the People’s Committee, the Food Plant Solutions approach was considered as a viable form of assistance to the children and their families, and has been implemented in three kindergartens and one primary school in Dai Hung and Tam Phu. The programme has so far directly benefited 991 students and 89 staff in total through the creation, maintenance and care of school gardens, and extended to the families of school children and the wider community. The gardens were built to intentionally give students the opportunity to learn how to grow their own nutritious produce in the cleanest and most environmentally friendly way possible, and also learn more efficient agricultural practices they could in turn share in their homes with their families. There was also the extended vision of students implementing these practices later in life should they become farmers as many of their families have.
In Dai Hung, the primary school is actively using the plots as educational and training tools for students. Unfortunately, due to the lack of functioning kitchen in the primary school, the level of achievement has been stalled as there are no premises in which to prepare the fresh produce. However this facility is available at the kindergarten, and now the children and staff have expanded the programme to provide a reliable and clean source of food for the students. The Tam Phu pilot site has also successfully deployed a school garden on-site for one of the two kindergartens with similar educational, training and food supply outcomes.
The successful “expansion” of the programme implemented in the schools has not been as a result of AOG World Relief Vietnam establishing more gardens, but rather in the self-driven replication of these gardens in the homes of the students by parents and community members who have been exposed to the Food Plant Solutions model and acknowledge its nutritional and economic benefits. The same is true for the replication and multiplication of the programme by other teachers and schools in the surrounding area who are keen to see more students and their families gain access to such positive outcomes. In contrast, the main obstacles hindering widespread implementation and adoption include the ability to source dedicated funds to initiate and continue to support the programme, and ensure safe and functioning school kitchens so that children and staff can reap the nutritional benefits from the plants they have successfully grown.
Stakeholder and Policy Maker Involvement
Given the unique governance style in Vietnam, clear mandates need to be decided upon and followed and project monitoring occurs regularly throughout the intervention. Despite this added supervisory element, the system has its benefits in that AOG World Relief Vietnam are able to gain clear and specific information from DOLISA, the People’s Committee, and other nominated stakeholders to ensure the successful implementation of project activities. Additional primary stakeholders who make the programme viable in both communes include the relevant schools, their committees, applicable local versions of the Department of Education and of course the students and their parents. Those involved from Australia include the Food Plant Solutions team who create the publications that AOG World Relief work from and use as their guide. Such partnerships between organisations, departments, and other local and external bodies are characteristic of project life in Vietnam, and all play a vital role in working collectively towards a successful development outcome.
Having the school principal and other lead staff as “champions” of the school gardens remains crucial for the success of the programme, as Vietnam has a very hierarchical society that fits a top down approach to emphasize the value of the programme and encourage participation. In addition, the fact that most of the school teachers are female, and mothers themselves, meant the school staff were keenly aware of the need to feed children the best food possible, and already invested in adopting strategies that could make this a reality. The Vietnamese also love to grow plants and tend to gardens, so teachers were passionate about the programme from the start as they loved the idea on a personal level. The dual purpose of the gardens for providing nutritious foods and creating a culturally-meaning space on school property shows another “win-win” situation that is increasing the success and wide-spread adoption of the Food Plant Solutions approach.
Key Lessons Learned
Specifically, well-functioning school kitchens and a designated cook were found to be vital programme elements that have maximized student and staff benefits thus far. In more broad terms, ensuring all stakeholders fully comprehend the expectations and requirements required to sustain the programme in their respective schools was identified as being key to the programme’s success and continued progress. Ensuring leadership, passion and long-term commitment in terms of the care and growth of the garden was also found to be particularly important. In Tam Phu, the primary lesson was the existence of a trade-off between scale and economic viability; one kindergarten had the funding but not the land size required to successfully feed and nourish the student population adequately, while the other had vast and viable land for gardening but a lack of capital for school garden creation. A coordinated venture may be most successful in this instance (depending on the proximity of the two kindergartens) in order to create a mutually beneficial agreement. This would, however require additional communication and collaborative organisation.
Food Plant Solutions
Telephone: +61 3 6498 6835
AOG World Relief Vietnam
Telephone: +84 93 2828 895
Photos at top of page: School children learning how to prepare garden beds to grow traditional Vietnamese vegetables in the communes of Tam Phu and Dai Hung. Photo credit: AOG World Relief