Agricultural diversification is seen as critically important to improve nutrition and better health among school children.

At the policy workshop on Vegetable Go To School Project (VGtS) on May 8, education minister Norbu Wangchuk and agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji signed a commitment to support synergies between school, water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and nutrition programmes in the education system.

The VGtS is a multidisciplinary school garden project piloting the use of multi-intervention school garden programmes in five countries – Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Indonesia, and Nepal to improve food security and nutrition.

The joint commitment exhibited strong will to employ efforts to provide continued financial and policy supports towards project implementation. The letter also encouraged all national and international organisations to support and roll over the project to a bigger number of other schools.

The project aims to generate evidence using randomised control trials and measured nutritional impact on schoolchildren in developing countries.

Project manager of VGtS and school agriculture programme coordinator, B B Rai, said the project began from 2012 with the objective to study the impact of school gardening integrated with WASH and Nutrition funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation through World Vegetable Centre and Swiss Tropical and Public Health.

The project has completed research. The policy workshop was conducted to brief the government and policymakers on the findings of three-year project since it is a research-based project. It also presents policy recommendations.

“We randomly selected 35 out of 80 primary schools for the project and, today, they all have vegetable garden developed integrated with WASH and Nutrition,” B B Rai said. “The project was conducted to see the learning aspect of the students if these three could be combined.”

Only 35 schools from 10 western dzongkhags were selected for easy monitoring.

B B Rai explained although all these activities already existed in the country, they were implemented independently. The integration is going to bring more meaning, more time to learn and impactful learning by discussing, sitting and working together to do a single activity.

“It is going to be expensive, but it is going to have long impact on learning because this project is not only to provide nutrition in the school, but also to educate and involve youth, parents and communities. The project was led by agriculture ministry, but we are trying to concentrate on students to make them understand through education ministry,” he said.

It is expected that with the project schools can have more organised vegetables garden, contributing to nutrition. It invites government to pay more attention to VGtS for integration to succeed.

The policy recommended integration of school vegetable gardens with activities of health and school feeding programme for better food and nutrition security, greater financial support and to expand the integrated school agriculture programme in primary schools to influence dietary and WASH practice at early age.

“We’ve recommended strongly and now that the commitment has already been signed, the coordination between the two ministries is very important to implement integration beyond 35 schools,” B.B Rai said. The commitment letter, he added, will serve as a reminder to the ministries in case the coordination falters.

According to the project survey, 84.38 percent of parents said they would like to continue project activities, and 79.91 percent said the activities have benefitted the communities.

Education minister Norbu Wangchuk said that 90 percent of the children do not receive required nutrition, which is why the commitment was signed to make sure they get required nutrition.

Lyonpo said the ministry takes nutrition seriously. “We’ll have to activate, deepen, expand, intensify agriculture programme as policy has recommended to make sure that the programme is successful in schools. The recent national nutrition survey shows the dietary intake is poor especially in rural areas where almost 27.3 percent of pregnant women and 31.3 percent adolescent girls are anemic.”

Yangchen C Rinzin