Eating healthy food and learning about nutrition in Timor-Leste

By Kate Roux and Ombretta Baggio, in Timor-Leste

“What kind of food do our families like to eat?” Anita asks the group. Wearing a brightly coloured orange shirt with the Red Cross logo clearly printed on the front, Anita explains how the various dishes on display vary in terms of vitamins, minerals and energy.

Anita Pereira is a volunteer for the Timor-Leste Red Cross Society (http://www.redcross.tl/), also known as Cruz Vermelha de Timor-Leste. She joined the Red Cross two years ago when the society arrived in her community, Bitirai, to pilot what is known as the ‘community-based health and first aid’ (CBHFA) approach. This approach seeks to create healthy and resilient people by empowering volunteers and communities to take charge of their own health.

Malnutrition is ever-present but underreported in Timor-Leste. More than half of children are chronically malnourished. In response, the Red Cross is promoting food demonstrations to tackle malnutrition, as part of its integrated community health programme.

Each month, Anita and a group of Red Cross volunteers gather with different households to brief them about nutrition.

“Before the classes began, normally families would give only rice and no vegetables to the kids. They believed it was enough; even the eggs were sold and not eaten,” Anita says. “Now, it changes because we talk about the importance of eating different kinds of foods. Now, the mothers mix all things inside the rice such as spinach, beans, eggs.”

The CBHFA approach not only brings important information on health and nutrition to the community of Bitirai, it is also enabling women to take a stronger and more visible role among their peers.

In Timor-Leste – as in many places around the world – women can be seen as secondary to the men in the community. Their participation in decision-making or leadership roles is very limited; their focus is primarily on taking care of the family.

As a result, women such as Anita do not have a lot of spare time to be a Red Cross volunteer. Each day she is busy looking after four children, her husband and their buffalo, pigs and chickens. She wakes up at 4am every morning to start her day by preparing breakfast.

“But I am happy on two sides – one to have this new experience for myself, and I’m also happy to be able to teach my neighbours what I’ve learned as a Red Cross volunteer,” she says.

After the nutrition information session is complete, Anita and the other volunteers take the food on display and gather around a table to prepare lunch. They toss sliced chicken, carrots, sweet potato and rice into a pot that sits over an open fire. Soon after, kids gather around to fill their plates. They begin eating mouthfuls of rice and vegetables, while Anita stands aside watching with a smile.

Many of the health risks facing the population in Timor-Leste are longstanding and require comprehensive and long term responses like the one Timor-Leste Red Cross Society is spearheading in 12 districts where the CBHFA (http://www.ifrc.org/en/what-we-do/health/community-based-health/) approach is promoting health and building community resilience.

Trained volunteers, who live in the same community as the local population and speak the same language, can help reach the most inaccessible, poor and vulnerable populations and contribute towards universal health coverage.