Being forced to eat and appreciate vegetables, especially the dreaded Karela (bitter gourd), is an extremely painful memory from my childhood. My grandmother would come up with myriad ways of concocting vegetable-based savouries, but they still remained an unwelcome taste to the palate.
The situation is pretty much the same even now.
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The story remained the same for the children of the Jorhat district in Assam whose mothers went through the same troubles to make their little ones consume nutrient-rich vegetables but with no tangible results.
But then, suddenly, the tides of vegetable consumption amongst the younger populace changed for the better!
Seeing their children eat veggies at home made the parents wonder at the reason behind the miracle. And it was at the Parents-Teachers Meeting that many found why. Their children were choosing to eat vegetables at home because during the Midday meals, their kids were being served veggies they had themselves grown at school, and the little ones were actually liking it!
The same trend was witnessed in 500 schools across seven districts of Assam.
More than 50,000 students from grade 6, 7 and 8 are actively involved in growing different varieties of vegetables in the backyard of their respective schools.
The vegetables are grown free of chemicals and pesticides and are 100 per cent natural. Also known as ‘Farmprenuers (farming+entrepreneur), these school students are part of a programme started by the Farm2Food Foundation. It aims to set up Nutrition Gardens in government schools across the state by practicing low cost organic farming.
Through farming activities, the Foundation also looks to change unhealthy eating habits. Furthermore, the vegetables that the students grow in the school premises are sold to the Mid-Day meal authority of the school.
Along with farming, students also prepare and sell vermi-compost, vermi-wash, and bio-pesticides to the community and earn profits!
The brainchild of Deepjyoti Sonu Brahma, the social enterprise was founded in 2011 by him and a few friends with an intention to empower the local farmers in Assam by optimising the use of land.
How It All Started
Having been born and raised in Assam, Sonu was well-versed with the violent agitations in the state that have, time and again, crippled people’s personal and professional lives.
Assam has a very high rice consumption rate and despite blessed rainfall patterns, it imports rice from Punjab and Haryana. Likewise, Assam imports fish despite having freshwater. Except for tea, we lack in almost all sectors, especially education. I realised the repercussions of agitations only when I moved out of the state for my higher education, Sonu tells The Better India.
While studying in Delhi, Sonu saw how peaceful protests in the University helped in encouraging social dialogue.
There was a meaningful social engagement that existed in Delhi which created a room for dialogues and discussions. It was missing in Assam. A Masters from TISS also gave me different perspectives on ways to resolve issues, he says.
During and even after his studies, Sonu joined citizen-driven movements like Narmada Bachao Andolan where he came face to face with the power a citizen possess. He also worked with several social and educational organisations for almost 15 years.
Armed with all the learning, knowledge and experience he had gained over the years, Sonu moved back to Jorhat district and launched his company to train farmers.
However, it did not get the kind of response he had expected.
It was difficult to change the traditional methods of farming. We did get some success but the resistance from the farming community overshadowed it. Since the state is a region burgeoning with rich indigenous resources and has youth potential, we shifted our focus from adults to children, shares Sonu.
Sonu came up a model of farming where he incoporated farming techniques with the concepts that students study in science and math books. Sonu approached the schools in Jorhat district and implemented the farming model on a pilot basis. Since it was a bootstrapped model when they started out, Sonu and his team started a ‘Beej Daan’ (seed donation) drive in the region, “Most of the population in the district is into agriculture and during summer vacations the children often help their parents in the field. So, the donation drive went smoothly.”
Children knocked on people’s doors and collected seeds. The curiosity of the parents urged them to impart ‘Gyaan Daan’ (Knowledge donation) to the kids.
The adults told the children everything related to native seeds and farming. The team also invited the parents to observe the process when they started the gardens.
With time, they implemented the model across several government schools.
The organisation’s team of experts on organic farming teach the children how to grow a vegetable by linking the procedure to chapters in their Math and Science textbooks. Teachers in the government schools quickly warmed up to the idea of outside classroom learning and came on board.
For example, children have to choose the area where the farming will be done. A chapter in sixth grade science textbook is about ‘Requirements to grow a plant’. A chapter in 8th grade is on soil requirements. The chapter on photosynthesis, usually taught in primary section, is now used for practical purposes.
We cover half portion of the leaf with a black cover and after a few days it is removed. The colour difference theory was only limited to textbooks but now students can actually see the change. The nutrition gardens act like an open science laboratory, says Sonu.
The mathematical concepts like measuring the land area, fence, data ratio of how much plantation is required to feed all school students and so on also get covered in the Farm2Food model.
Though the children earn barely Rs 5 from selling vegetables and manure, they are all required to open bank accounts, “Many children visit the banks along with their parents as it is their money. This, in a way, is helping them learn how the bank functions.”
The schools that have this organic model are now participating in science competitions at block levels. As per Sonu, one school, in an exhibition last year, had displayed 100 native varieties of vegetables, some of which were on the verge of extinction.
Another impact that can visibly be seen is the involvement of mothers. Many children have gone back and started organic farming in their home backyard. Seeing this, the organisation is also providing free training and assistance to housewives.
As such, we work with Mothers’ groups to enable the setting up of Nutrition Gardens in homes. We provide training to homemakers in vermi-compost preparation. Whilst this is prepared initially for the Nutrition Gardens at home, women later make compost for commercial use, says Sonu.
In Sonu’s 8-year journey, among the success and positive impacts, numerous challenges, and financial crunches top the list.
We are currently relying on help from corporations and government. We want to increase the annual farming cycles from two to four to get more produce but for that we need a strong financial backup, says Sonu.
If this low-cost farming model, that introduces students to environment-friendly practices, changes the general negative perception of farming and, at the same time, teaches them a thing or two about business, gets replicated across all the schools in India, then it promises a brighter and healthier future.
You can reach out to Deepjyoti Sonu at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website here.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)