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School Meals Fest raises hopes for indigenous food systems

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SHILLONG, April 2: Indigenous food systems need to be safeguarded from the onslaught of commercial culinary offerings, participants at the Mini School Meals Festival said.
The North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) organised the festival at Laitsohpliah in East Khasi Hills on Tuesday. Several activists, international and national journalists, and bureaucrats participated in the event along with the teachers, midday meal cooks, students, and community members of Laitsohpliah.
Kathleen Finlay, the president of the New York-based Glynwood Centre for Regional Food and Farming inaugurated the festival. She said that her organisation is working towards reviving the traditional food systems pushed out over time in the United States, especially in New York.
“There are still strong indigenous peoples’ food systems here (in Northeast India). Of course, there are modern threats to these systems but it is my hope these systems will help us shape the future and I believe NESFAS will make sure we safeguard these indigenous food systems,” she said.
A competition was part of the ‘Linking to agrobiodiversity for improved diets, nutrition, and livelihoods’ initiative aimed at increasing access of school children to healthy, nutritious, and diverse balanced diets through school meals.
Six schools – Dewlieh Government LP School, Nongtraw RCLP School, Mawmihthied Government LP School, Khliehumstem Presbyterian LP and UP School, Subakalai SSA LP School and Laitsohpliah RCLP/UP School – took part in the competition. They showcased local school meal platters.
The contestants from Khliehumstem Presbyterian LP & UP School were adjusted winners of the competition.
In his welcome address, Nestar Kharmawphlang, the secretary of Laitsohpliah Dorbar Shnong, said NESFAS’ aim to uplift farmers is highly commendable. He said his community collaborated with NESFAS for the project as it aimed at addressing malnutrition in Meghalaya.
“Our focus is on procuring ingredients for the school meals locally by utilizing our rich biodiversity. The school garden initiative has helped children get closer to nature and get a better understanding of the food they eat,” he said.
American food journalist Mark Bittman, a former columnist for The New York Times, said mono-cropping has destroyed food systems worldwide and the world needs to learn from indigenous communities such as in Laitsohpliah.
“We eat what we grow and if we grow plenty of plants, the health of both humans and the world will improve. We need to showcase these indigenous food systems to the world. I am impressed by what NESFAS is doing and I am thankful to be here learning,” he said.
Pius Ranee, the executive director of NESFAS said the society seeks to get school children excited about local farming systems through various interventions. “The first key activity is inculcating in them the joy of learning within the school gardens,” he said, lauding The Indigenous Partnership (TIP) for its support of the project.
He added that other innovative ideas such as introducing wild edibles into school meals and sourcing vegetables directly from farmers have been implemented into the project lately.
“This mini-festival is an outcome of the good work that these schools have done and achieved so far. NESFAS hopes to scale up this initiative and include more schools in the state,” Ranee said.
Phiba Tariang, the headmistress of the Dewlieh Government LP School said the teachers have also been able to learn along with the students about various farming practices in the school garden.
“Our school garden has helped us implement a nutritional menu plan that includes wild edibles,” she said while hoping that the project would continue in the long run for the benefit of the school-going children.
Alfred Iawphniaw, Sohra’s Sub-Divisional School Education Officer, praised the school meals initiative. “I will convey to the higher authorities that the school meals model is a huge success and that we should replicate this model in schools across the state. We will surely try to work out an agreement with NESFAS to expand this initiative,” he said.
Patricia Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times, stressed the need to turn back to the indigenous food systems in the age of fast food. She applauded NESFAS for having undertaken initiatives to promote the same.
“Our knowledge about our rich biodiversity is our way out and so we need to protect our biodiversity to sustain ourselves. I would like to thank all the cooks who have done their best to provide the most nutritious food to our school children,” she added.
Phrang Roy, the founding chairperson of NESFAS, said the event has been a success because of the participants. He attributed the success of the school meals initiative to the efforts of the communities, cooks, and teachers.
He implored the international community to take part in the school meals initiative while asking the state government to step up its support for such projects.

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