Root vegetables: Kenyan schools embrace indigenous foods

Today, when students file into the lunchroom at Mundika High School in western Kenya, they are greeted by a spread of nutritious local vegetables with exotic-sounding names, like spider plant. But that wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, that fare had largely disappeared from Kenyan plates, replaced by cheaper foreign-derived foods, like cabbage and maize meal.

“The first time we introduced indigenous African leafy vegetables in a school meal programme, we didn’t know how the students would respond,” said Aurillia Manjella, an agricultural consultant who helped Mundika high, and several other schools, integrate traditional foods into their menus.

Turns out, she need not have worried. The greens proved to be a hit, at least before the school was closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mundika High School is one of several institutions across Kenya, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Turkey that have made the switch to local foods with the help of an initiative backed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners.

Called the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project, its aim is to address the narrowing variety of people’s diets at a time when nutritionally-poor processed foods are dominating dinner plates. “This project is an example of how bringing together international and national partners across the agriculture, environment, health and education sectors can improve ecosystem health and create resilient environments and communities,” said Marieta Sakalian, a senior manager with UNEP.