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My nutrition journey with SNEHA

Oct 1 2022 / Posted in Child nutrition

- By Ujwala Bapat, Program Coordinator, Nurse Aide Programme (SNEHA)

Education is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as a process of teaching, training and learning, especially in schools, colleges or universities, to improve knowledge and develop skills. For me, education has gone beyond my school and college to the experiences and knowledge I have gathered while working with SNEHA.

My journey with nutrition began when I joined SNEHA in 2004. I attended a session on Benefits of Breastfeeding by Dr Armida Fernandez, (Ex-Dean of Sion hospital and SNEHA’s Founder Trustee), where I learnt that for long-term sustained improved health outcomes, nutrition needs to be prioritized at every stage of your life, more so in the first five years of the human life. Mother’s milk delivers your first dose of nutrition and that is why breastfeeding is a crucial process in a child and mother’s life, it presents in the form of improved bonding.

In 2012, I was involved in a clinical trial in Mumbai’s vulnerable areas of Govandi and Mankhurd delivering the integrated model of health through the ‘Community Resource Centre (CRC)’. We addressed maternal and newborn health, child health and nutrition, Sexual and Reproductive health, Adolescent health, and prevention of violence while focusing on nutrition to reduce malnourishment and working with Low Birth Weight (LBW) babies.

To inculcate good eating habits and bring about a change in behaviours and attitudes with a focus on health outcomes, we first did a baseline survey to understand existing patterns and design our interventions based on the findings.

We noticed that people were more inclined towards initiatives which could earn them monetary benefits and health took a backseat. There were other factors such as culture, sanitation, hygiene, cooking practices and eating habits, health seeking behaviour that influenced health-related practices in these communities. Based on this information, we equipped ourselves with knowledge regarding nutrition, the food groups, minerals and vitamins essential in daily diet. We conducted a demonstration of healthy food recipes with affordable and accessible ingredients. We invited the community members to develop and share recipes which they felt were easy for them to cook and feed their families.

"My experience with women in the communities is that, if you encourage them, explain the consequences of their positive actions, motivate their involvement and give them sufficient time to assimilate, they are able to see the benefits of the changes you are proposing."

One of our community women from Mankhurd area got inspired seeing our recipe demonstrations and came up with her own recipe. She took initiative and demonstrated it to other women. She arranged everything from stove to all the ingredients of the recipe and cooked with the help of other women at our Community Centre. She used the methods and steps taught to her in the nutrition sessions like washing, cutting and cooking the vegetables properly. She explained it to other women as well, becoming a role model for our initiative.

She later shared that she felt happy and excited that other women listened to her as she spoke, they were cooperating, participating and enjoying her cooking demonstration. She felt proud that she had done something important to ensure the health and well-being of her own family and the community as a whole.

This one event helped us garner the involvement of community members in other activities too. They formed a mothers’ group for breastfeeding to guide and support the mothers in their basti. This was the beginning of the shift in behaviours and attitudes of this particular community and the collaboration with Public Health and Nutrition systems like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) gave impetus to our work. My work with the Community Resource Centre helped me further in both my personal and professional life.

"The more I worked on-ground, I began incorporating my learning in my daily life. I made sure that seasonal foods, different food groups and different cooking patterns were included in my daily meals."

My experience also made me deep dive into the various initiatives and issues that SNEHA works on, in the vulnerable informal settlements of Mumbai. Today, I can proudly say that I have worked across almost all programmes of SNEHA. For the last 18 years, I am leading a team of motivated teachers and doctors and together we have trained more than 1300 young women coming from difficult circumstances and families to become Nurse-Aides. While we had never envisaged a pandemic like COVID-19, the young Nurse-Aides became the ‘helping hand’ of the health system during the challenging time.

As I conclude this blog post, I feel immense gratitude for the opportunities and experiences that SNEHA has provided me with. The family, the organization, the people I work with, the women and children we work with and now the past and present batches of Nurse Aide students, all have become an integral part of my life. They say, Education can empower people and the learning process continues throughout your life. I have lived this and my journey continues…