Changing eating habits in rural Lebanese schools
In recent years, the traditional Lebanese diet has been fading in favour of processed food choices that are often high in fat, sugar, and sodium. At the same time, deteriorating rural ecosystems seriously threatens traditional food production. New health challenges have emerged for the rural poor as a result of this “nutrition transition.”
Since 2009, IDRC’s Ecohealth program has supported researchers studying the potential of rural ecosystems and traditional foods to improve child nutrition and health in Lebanon.
In 2010, in the village of Aarsal, researchers successfully collaborated with two local schools over a 6-month period to tackle eating habits. Team members, including those from the American University of Beirut (AUB), the University of Ottawa, Canada, and local stakeholders, started a school food program. Run by the community's own Healthy Kitchen, the program provided a mid-morning snack to 135 children. The snacks met 25% of children’s daily energy and nutrient needs and reduced their intake of processed foods.
Among children in participating schools, researchers identified:
- the extent of stunted growth and weight issues
- the possible co-existence of over- and under nutrition
- a link between gender and anaemia and obesity
- economic and societal reasons for a shift in eating patterns
- links between parental occupation and/or education and child health and eating habits
New health challenges
|2nd baseline assessment, September 2010. Rheam Abou Ezze, Research Assistant, and Hala Khudari, M.Sc. student measuring hemoglobin and glucose levels in an Aarsal school.|
The nutrition transition in Lebanon was identified in an earlier IDRC-funded project that explored the social, economic, and environmental determinants of health in improving rural livelihoods, particularly for women and their children.
Overall, researchers described a worrying increase in new health challenges facing the rural poor. These included micro-nutrient deficiencies and undernutrition and a steep rise in non-communicable diseases: the leading cause of death is cardiovascular disease. They found traditional food production systems threatened by urban encroachment, non-renewable resource exploitation (quarrying has now replaced commercial agriculture), water pollution, and land abandonment.
Improving child nutrition in Aarsal
Rheam Abou Ezze, a research assistant from AUB, sees the program as a hopeful step forward: “The parents eat traditional foods but the kids don’t like it because they’re not used to it. …we’re trying to bring it back in a social context where they’re eating with their classmates and maybe hoping that they will enjoy it more …and eat it at home.“
The program is evaluating changes in nutrition status among participating children by measuring height and weight and assessing anaemia and glucose levels. “The economy has shifted, so the economic situation is improving. It’s easier for the parents to send money (for children to buy processed foods),” says Abou Ezze.
Rheam Abou Ezze
|Children participating in the school feeding program in Aarsal. Sandwiches prepared by the Healthy Kitchen.|
Education sessions for women and children also encouraged healthier eating habits and more diverse foods– both at school and in the home. Abou Ezze sees education as a key project component: “We talked to the kids about the importance of eating breakfast. We’re educating the children about nutrition and about hygiene, food safety and physical activity. And we’re emphasizing to parents that it is at a young age that children learn habits,” she says. A hopeful future
In Aarsal, and most likely in other rural Lebanese communities, a shift back to traditional food habits among young generations is possible. For example, gardening is common in the community and can provide an abundance of local fruits, vegetables and dairy. Residents take great pride in their gardens and identify cultural, health and economic benefits to producing local foods.
Early education will help children to understand the importance of such activities and encourage them to choose healthy and diverse foods throughout their life. Community initiatives, like the Healthy Kitchen, are offering them viable options for healthy food, in this case based on a more traditional diet.
An integrative ecohealth approach is proving to be good for the community of Aarsal.
Watch a Youtube video
on the project, featuring AUB research assistant Rheam Abou Ezze
about the links between food security, diet and agriculture in rural Lebanon by former Ecohealth doctoral awardee, Elizabeth Hunter, or listen to a short audio
of her experience on this project
See a cookbook
of traditional Lebanese recipes produced by the project
Image (top): Dima Ousta
At the interim Healthy Kitchen at Al Namouthajiya School in Aarsal, Lebanon - Women preparing pumpkin kibbeh with yogurt, May 2011.