Childrens’ Diets in Rural Zomba
At a household level women and older girls are responsible for the preparation of meals. The consumption and dominance of cereal-based diets were common during both food secure (FS) periods (Mar – Apr) and food insecure (FI) periods (Dec – Feb). In the morning a typical meal was tubers or a processed cereal such as wholegrain porridge with or without any beverage, such as tea. In the afternoon/evening a child’s typical meal consisted of a processed cereal, mostly nsima, with vegetables and/or pulses, and sometimes meat products. A meal of nsima, made from maize flour, was widely believed to be a satisfying meal regardless of the presence of other foods. Various African Leafy Vegetables (ALVs) and pulses were recorded as common side dishes taken to complement nsima and other grains. Data from the food diaries showed that common ALVs consumed by children across the four villages included leaves from pumpkins, green beans, and lentils and wild species such as Amaranthus, Bidens or Cleome. From the 24 h food recall, the percentage of children who consumed ALVs were 59% in Makombe, 63% in Kasonga, 27% in Mtuluma, and 65% in Mpheta.
There was no significant difference (t = 0.36; p > 0.05) in the number of meals taken by children at home during the FS and FI periods, averaging above two in both (Table 2). During the FI period, a smaller group of households (4%) only had one meal a day, while the lowest number of meals at household level during FS period was two. Children from Makombe, Mpheta, and Kasonga all received porridge (made from soya beans) at their school during school days, which added to the average number of meals taken by children in FS and FI periods. In Malawi, the School Feeding Programme was introduced in primary schools to accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal 2 on Education to increase enrollment, attendance, and retention of children in schools (Department of Nutrition, HIV, and AIDS 2009).
Despite the insignificant difference in the number of meals taken by children at home, children indicated that there was a difference in the quality of meals during the FI and FS periods; food eaten during the FS period were satisfying and of good quality. This was supported by the HDDS and IDDS with both scores being significantly lower during the food insecure period than the FS period (t = 4.47, p < 0.0005) (Table 2). There were significant differences among the villages in the number of meals, HDDS, and IDDS (Table 2). In both FS and FI periods, Kasonga registered the highest DDS, followed by Mpheta, Mtuluma, and Makombe. However, the difference was insignificant between Mpheta and Mtuluma. Makombe reported the lowest dietary diversity scores for both FS and FI periods.
Children complemented the meals taken in their homes with other foods outside their home, because the IDDS was always greater than the HDDS in all study sites and both food availability periods (Table 2). These other foods were consumed as meals or snacks at school, at the market, during play, and in their friends’ homes. Snacks reported in children’s food diaries included biscuits, sweets, drinks, and fruits (both wild and conventional fruits). There was a high correlation between a child’s IDDS and household affluence, with children from better-off households reporting higher IDDS than children from poor households (t = 4.72: p < 0.001).
Diversity of Wild Foods Consumed by Children
Every child participant in each village consumed at least one type of wild food, but there were inter- and intra-location variations. Across all four villages, the children recalled a total of 119 species (Fig. 1) (see Maseko 2015 for full list), with the largest groups being fruits (33%), birds (20%), and wild vegetables (16%).
The lowest numbers of wild foods (44) were reported in Makombe and Mpheta where forest cover was the lowest. In contrast, 59 species were reported in Mtuluma and 48 in Kasonga (Fig. 2). However, the composition of the types of species varied. The Shannon-Weiner index for the two most forested villages (Mtuluma – 1.79; Kasonga – 1.78) were marginally higher than those for the two least forested villages (Makombe – 1.65; Mpheta – 1.63), indicating a higher diversity of wild foods. Wild fruits were the most species rich group in all villages except Mpheta, where wild birds were the most species rich group. In Mpheta, 33% of all wild food species recalled by the children were birds and no bushmeat was reported for the village. On the other hand, 34% of wild foods reported in Makombe were fruits, 25% were vegetables, 18% were birds, and the remainder bushmeat species (Fig. 2). There was no difference (t = 0.60; p = 0.55) in the number of wild foods reported in group-rankings between boys (7.3 ± 3.4) and girls (6.9 ± 3.5), or by socioeconomic group (F = 2.49; p = 0.07).
There was a weak positive relationship (r2 = 0.062; p = 0.011) between child age and the number of wild foods listed in three minutes (Fig. 3). Children aged ten years or younger listed on average 5.4 ± 2.9 wild foods, whilst those 15 or older listed approximately 50% more (7.6 ± 3.5).
Wild Food Consumption during Food Secure and Food Insecure Periods
On a 24 h recall basis, 23% of children consumed at least one wild food. However, over a longer period, captured by means of the weekly food diaries, 82% of children consumed at least one type of wild food during the FS and FI periods (Table 3). There was no variation in the overall proportion of children consuming wild foods during FS and the FI periods other than in Mpheta where no wild foods were listed during the food insecure period. However, wild vegetables were consumed more during the FI period (Table 3). During the FI periods, some children relied strongly on wild food, such as insects or a mixed dish of wild vegetables as a meal. For example, one girl from Mpheta commented:
When we do not have other food, we grind okra to create flour and prepare it just as nsima, then we have it with Amaranthus as a relish. Sometimes we simply mix okra and Amaranthus to have a vegetable soup and take it as a meal.
Consumption of wild vegetables and wild fruits was common in all the sites with an average of 64% and 58% of children consuming wild vegetables and wild fruits, respectively. Over a seven day period wild vegetables were the most consumed food type, with 70% of children consuming them during the FI period and 58% during the FS period (χ2 = 3.1; p = 0.08). Consumption of mushrooms was also higher during the FI period (17%) than the FS period (2%) (χ2 = 13.1; p = 0.0003). In contrast, there was little difference (χ2 = 0.5; p = 0.47) in the consumption of wild fruits between the FS (60%) and the FI (55%) periods (Fig. 4).
Children commonly consumed a variety of bushmeat and small mammals in Kasonga, with a low frequency in both FS (11%) and FI periods (13%). These included hare, mice, duiker, monkey, and bushbuck. Consumption of crabs was also recorded in Kasonga and Mpheta, with 10% of children consuming them. On the other hand, consumption of insects was low (2%) in all villages. Consumption of birds was common in Mpheta, with up to 11% of children eating birds during the FI period and 7% during the FS period (χ2 = 1.0; p = 0.32). Consumption of honey was reported in Kasonga.
There was a clear distinction in the consumption of wild foods, both in frequency and intensity (Table 4), over longer periods of time, such as a year. The children were asked how often they consume wild foods to determine the level of continued dependence or non-dependence on wild foods by. In all sites, wild vegetables were commonly eaten several times a month or several times a week. Only a few respondents stated that they never ate wild vegetables. Most children in Makombe, Kasonga, and Mtuluma reported consuming wild fruits. Children from Mtuluma reported the highest frequency in the consumption of wild fruits with at least 53% of children consuming them weekly, while 65% of children in Kasonga stated that they consumed wild fruits several times during the month. In Makombe, approximately one-third of children (35%) consumed wild foods frequently, a slightly larger proportion (39%) rated their frequency of consumption as low. In Mpheta, 38% of children reported a low frequency in the consumption of wild fruits, and an additional 38% did not consume wild fruits. Across all sites, bushmeat was often consumed several times a year with highest frequencies in Kasonga and Makombe. Most (76%) children in Mpheta did not consume bushmeat. However, birds and insects were commonly consumed several times a year in all study sites (Table 4).
Wild Food Gathering and Consumption
Children’s consumption of wild foods was determined by several internal (those inspired by children) and external (those not made by children) factors (Table 5). Many children indicated that they consume wild foods because the foods contribute positively to their nutritional status and “give them good health.” According to the children, wild foods were fattening, provide energy and strength, protect the body from diseases, and supplement the blood. In addition, the children said that wild foods provide nutrients such as iron, carbohydrates, vitamins, and proteins. Forty-five percent indicated that wild fruits provide good health and nutrition, with the corresponding figure for wild vegetables being 28%. While older children (13–18 years old) were able to provide some details regarding the nutritional information of wild foods, younger children (8–13 years old) simply indicated that the wild foods contribute to good health. Some children also indicated that they consume wild foods to satisfy the six food groups to be healthy, as taught at school.
On the other hand, some wild foods, such as some insects, birds, and bushmeat, were consumed because they were regarded as delicious and provide variety to the diet and are locally termed “zakudya za nkhwiru” (a delicacy; nutritionally valuable and tastier) (Table 5). This was common for animal-based wild foods. They are considered a delicacy and provide alternatives to commonly consumed side-dishes, at the same time providing fats and proteins.
Convenience was another reason that influenced children’s use of wild foods. It was clear that children considered wild fruits to be tasty and sweet and was a common snack to take when hungry and fruits were observed (Table 5). When children go to school, for play, to fetch firewood or water, to conduct farm activities or go to the market, they consume wild fruits along the way.
A lack of other alternative foods in the household was also mentioned as a factor prompting some children to collect and consume wild foods, suggesting that household socioeconomic status plays a role. Thirty-three percent of children stated that they consumed wild vegetables because their household lacked other alternatives (Table 5).
A number of reasons were provided by some children for not consuming certain types of wild foods. The first was that they disliked the taste or smell. For instance, Aloe meynharthii and Bidens are not consumed by some children because they taste bitter, while to others, Amaranthus species had an unpleasant smell. Nevertheless, when asked by their parents to collect these vegetables, they complied. Secondly, some children indicated that they do not consume particular wild foods due to medical reasons. For instance, some girls do not consume Bidens because they suffer from what is culturally known as “mutu waukulu” (migraine). Thirdly, a common reason was the perceived stigma associated with some wild foods. During focus group discussions, one girl indicated that, “some children do consume the mentioned wild foods in their homes but are too shy to reveal and are afraid that others will laugh at them.” These notions differed between wild foods in different sites indicating that perceptions of wild foods are mediated by sociocultural norms.
While one wild food was associated with the “poverty complex” at one site, the same food might be highly valued at another site. For example, mice and vervet monkeys were considered food for the poor in Makombe, whilst some children in Kasonga considered them delicacies. Similarly, wild foods that were deemed to be associated with poverty in Kasonga (such as Bidens and Amaranthus) were highly valued and commonly consumed in Mtuluma. Lastly, some children mentioned particular beliefs, taboos and faith. For instance, it was stated that most Muslim children do not consume mice, whereas some children in Mtuluma indicated that they do not consume vervet monkeys because they resemble humans. On the other hand, some children from Kasonga and Makombe did not consume caterpillars because they felt that they looked scary.
All children in all study sites consumed at least one or more types of wild foods but there were inter-and intra-location variations in wild food use. There were clear similarities in the consumption patterns of certain wild foods (such as wild fruits) from children who lived near each other by comparing their food diaries hence suggesting that these wild foods were consumed as snacks outside their homes. The food diaries also revealed that some wild foods such as wild vegetables, bushmeat, some birds and insects, were taken as part of the meals as side dishes and complimented cereals or in some cases consumed solely.
The trends in the frequency in consumption of wild foods by children across the study sites and between different food categories differed. In all study sites, wild vegetables were commonly taken several times a month or several times a week. Only a few respondents admitted to never eating wild vegetables. Most children in Makombe, Kasonga and Mtuluma reported consuming wild fruits. Children from Mtuluma reported the highest frequency in the consumption of wild fruits with at least 53% of children consuming them weekly while children (65%) in Kasonga consumed wild fruits several times during the month. In Makombe, while some children (35%) consumed wild foods more frequently, other children’s frequency in consumption was low (39%). In Mpheta, 38% of children reported a low frequency in the consumption of wild fruits, and an additional 38% did not consume the fruits at any time in a year. Most children in Kasonga consumed bushmeat and the village recorded the highest frequency of consumption. Across all sites, bushmeat was often consumed several times a year with highest frequency in Kasonga and Makombe. Most (76%) children in Mpheta did not consume bushmeat and the lowest frequency in consumption was reported in the village. Similarly, birds and insects were commonly consumed several times a year in all study sites.
Commercialisation of Wild Foods by Children
In each village, some children sell one or more types of wild foods, ranging from 14% of households in Makombe to 35% in Kasonga, and 37% in both Mtuluma and Mpheta. Poverty appears to be a significant driver of engagement in the sale of wild foods because 40% of children from poor households stated they sell wild foods, whereas only 7% of children from the better-off households did (χ2 = 30.3; p < 0.0001).
Wild fruits are the most common wild food sold by children (18%), with trade in Uapaca kirkiana being the most widespread. Children in Kasonga sold Uapaca kirkiana at the local market and tourist destination sites on Zomba Plateau, where a plate of Uapaca kirkiana is sold for on average between MK500 - MK2000 (± US 10 - 40c) depending on how wealthy the tourist appears, but sells for only M K50 in the local market. Children in Kasonga and Mtuluma also sell mushrooms. A wide variety of wild vegetables are sold by children at the local markets, with the most common being Amaranthus in all villages and tubers (Chikande; Disa sp.) in Kasonga.
Children participate in the sale of wild foods for several reasons: mainly to obtain basic items and utilities for the household (33%), personal items (29%), supplement food (21%), and purchase school items (17%). Household basic items include groceries for the household such as soap, sugar, salt, matches, and cooking oil. Individual items purchased include clothes, body oils/lotion, and snacks for themselves, whereas school materials included notebooks, pens, and pencils.