Tastes Like Chicken (But it’s Not): Taste bud re-education and other innovative solutions to malnutrition

Gandhi once said, “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Yet most of us are city dwellers who have never learned how to dig the earth and tend the soil. The smell and touch of fresh soil is the domain of arborists and gardening hobbyists, some of whom wear gloves and boots as protection from the messiness of their work.

Our lost connection to the earth extends to the nutrients it provides. We have begun to forget not only the soil, but also the joy of cooking. Even worse, we’ve forgotten how wholesome nutrients taste. My grandmother is still able to distinguish the taste and smell of free-range chicken versus commercially-bred chicken. I can’t, despite the fact that I’m just two generations away from her.

Like an ear damaged by prolonged exposed to noise, our taste buds have been desensitized by excessive amounts of salt and sugar, and flavor intensifying additives – like monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate – that are designed to make us crave more. We are so used to the synthetic sensation of chicken extract cubes that we have forgotten how real chicken tastes.

As we forget many things between the soil and our taste buds, we lose a wealth of knowledge that was gathered and passed through thegenerations. This ancient wisdom – a deep understanding of the complex interrelations of ecosystems – generated practical soil preservation techniques, natural pesticides, the use of animals to deter pests, food processing techniques, medicinal properties of herbs, and much more.

But within our concrete jungles of supermarkets and malls, a modern agricultural society is evolving.

In Indonesia, urban farming initiatives like Indonesia Berkebun (“berkebun” literally means gardening) are mobilizing urbanites to remember our connection with the soil. Powered by social media, Indonesia Berkebun reintroduces the value of land as a planting ground, rather than just as another investment. Instead of burning calories in an air-conditioned gym, participating city dwellers, young and old, are sweating under the sun, planting food crops in a vacant lot borrowed from the owner.

This urban farming community network has spread to 27 cities and three campuses throughout Indonesia, converting abandoned properties into sources of food and oxygen. Each city network organizes regular community gatherings where neighborhood residents plant, cultivate, and harvest together. Akademi Berkebun (“Gardening Academy”) was established to (re-)build our knowledge of planting, educating and organizing citizens to use the land around their houses, or land in their neighborhood that has been unproductive.

Another initiative is arising for people in rural Indonesia, many of whom have come to prefer industrialized food to the natural foods they traditionally ate, and are consequently suffering from malnutrition. Mantasa is promoting the nutritional value of wild plants, teaching people to eat wild and get nourished by 7,000 plant species that are readily available in the surrounding forests and mountains.

This involves a struggle to deconstruct the popular mindset that the best nutrients are in processed foods sold in local markets, while wild plants are old-fashioned, and merely the diet of the poor. To compete successfully with processed foods, Mantasa encourages the women in a village to try culinary experiments with edible wild plants so they learn to create nutritious, tasty and attractive foods with them.

Recognizing that children are both influential actors and victims of the current food system, the organization has also launched the Bloom Your Taste Buds project in schools. Children are engaged by experimenting with their taste buds (a sensitizing process that counters the strong flavor of their modern diet) and with their other senses, as they eat and grow their own food.

In this way, Mantasa is tackling micronutrient deficiency, and at the same time conserving biodiversity. By documenting and reviving the traditional knowledge of wild plants, it hopes to return healthy natural eating habits to the common people.

These are just a few examples of much-needed solutions for today’s nutrition problem. As awareness grows of the importance of healthy nutrition, more innovative ideas and initiatives will emerge. Imagine the tremendous potential that can come from collaboration and knowledge exchange between these innovators around the globe within a community dedicated to Nutrients for All.

Editor’s Note: Ashoka Changemakers’ Nutrients for All competition is now open for entries. Your project could win up to $45,000 in unrestricted funding. The deadline to enter is June 19, 2013. You can follow @changemakers and #nutrients4all on Twitter, and find them on Facebook for the latest updates about Nutrients for All.

Agriculture, Health Care
nutrition, public health