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Chef Arthur in Ethiopia

Andrew Marvell, The Garden -
Far other worlds, and other seas

OmVed Gardens has a long-standing partnership with the UN World Food Programme that originated in Dubai, where the latter operates as a humanitarian hub, providing crisis assistance to communities throughout Africa and Asia. Thanks to this partnership, we were introduced to Chef Arthur Potts Dawson and together at OmVed Gardens we have been exploring how food is at the nexus of the world’s problems and also the creative opportunity to catalyse change.  As Head Chef at OmVed Gardens and a World Food ProgrammeAdvocate Chef, Arthur continually explores how food relates to personal potential and the bigger ecological issues of our world. The two main areas that his advocacy narrates are the role of food in global conflict and the earth’s climate. Arthur has ongoing involvement in the organisation’s promotion of sustainable food systems and, crucially, ones that redress the level of nutrients found in meals.

In November, Arthur’s role took him to West Africa, to witness the World Food Programme’s work and challenges first hand. Arthur was invited to Ethiopia to better understand the extent of the organisation’s work to achieve zero hunger and improve nutrition, through their School Feeding Programme. Last year, via its operations in over 70 countries, the World Food Programme provided meals for over 18 million children; most of the ingredients for these meals sourced from local suppliers and smallholdings.

To facilitate an operation of such scale, in Ethiopia, the World Food Programme has established an entire system that provides seeds and supports the management of crops through harvesting, processing and distribution. At its core, this system provides food for school children, which enables them to focus on their education.

The school that Arthur visited feeds 1,400 children every day, many of whom walk up to five kilometres from surrounding villages. In addition to providing a nutritious meal for these children, Arthur also witnessed a positive impact on immediate communities that grow and harvest much of the food. Crops are harvested and then taken to primary cooperative centres in close proximity of the fields. Bags of wheat, barley, teff, kidney beans and corn are then weighed and sold, the farmers paid and the produce taken further afield, sometimes up to 300 kilometres to centres set up by the World Food Programme. From here, produce is distributed to schools, colleges and educations centres.

This system feeds millions of children. The World Food Programme is the vessel through which the money and food flows, minimising corruption and allowing for easy, safe production and delivery.

It was eye opening to say the least. One particular learning curve for Arthur was the level of waste produced by the system, an issue that the World Food Programme are already acutely aware of. Food waste is far from an unfamiliar term in the West, and something that has been featured frequently in OmVed Garden’s own programme, however, for us it happens further along the chain, in our supermarkets, on (or off) our plates. In the fields of Ethiopia, where the harvesting is all done manually, the corn is picked and packed by hand, with the primary production area in many cases little more than a hut. This basic set up can result in a harvest of 40% less by the time it reaches distribution centres.

With some investment, inefficiencies in primary production can be overcome, and the benefits of this considered network between land and community were obvious. In this closely designed system Arthur was able to see the connection first-hand between the agricultural land and the school. Through his discussions with farmers, World Food Programme operatives and school chefs, he was able to develop a richer understanding of the challenges; how to improve the nutritional value and palatability of the school meals, within a daily budget of 35p per child.

What a contrast it is from the glasshouse in Highgate to the tin hut kitchen in Ethiopia! Amongst store rooms housing mountains of grain, huge vats of boiling corn and fire pits, Arthur diced pumpkins which he simmered with onions and salt, and served with mashed red kidney beans and papaya from a local market, on injera (a traditional Ethiopian flatbread). Higher in nutrition and comparable in price, Arthur’s feast was welcomed with an 8 out of 10 from the children, teachers and school chefs.

Further insights were gained through conversations with one of the elders in the school kitchen. Arthur discussed the aggressive nature of corn on the digestive systems of young children as opposed to something like teff – an incredibly nutritious grain that is fermented to make injera flatbread. When compared to corn, both cheaper and higher-yielding, teff has become the harder option to grow. What’s more, the rise of teff as a superfood in the West also has implications on its affordability at a local level. The World Food Programme has created a short film that documents Arthur’s cooking experience (coming soon), his moment of acceptance from the school chefs as well as the recipe.

It is also important to understand that whilst food is a basic need, it supports the higher need of purpose and potential. Beyond aggressive grains, how can we create a food system that supports healthy growth, development, potential and purpose? Through both the emotional and practical connections that Arthur made in Ethiopia with the World Food Programme operatives, teachers, children and the farmers, we have a much richer understanding of what the World Food Programme does and the challenges they face. Arthur’s observations and first-hand experiences bring inspiration and a sense of empowerment which will be translated into a programme at OmVed Garden’s in the coming months.

Through his experiences in Ethiopia, Arthur has seen that it is possible to increase the nutrition by introducing more vegetables at a comparable cost, but dig a little deeper and you find an underlying issue with further reaching implications. Soil degradation cannot be overlooked in a land that is exhausted by keeping a generation alive.

Here was a glimpse into a system with little longevity. Arthur’s discussions with the farmers revealed that a whole generation of people who work on the land, have relied on seed, fertiliser and prayers for rain. The fundamental importance of soil health had become overshadowed by the short-term need for super crops.

During his journey, Arthur saw in person the effects of the extensive deforestation in Ethiopia. To grow the massive amounts of corn needed to feed a population that has tripled in 30 years, the land has been exhausted. Stripped bare of nutrients and minerals, lacking in natural vegetation or any crop rotation, there is little or no plant litter to create compost. What little plant litter is recovered is often used for animal feed; a common practice is to feed corn husks to animals rather than back into the ground. Soils are depleted after years of corn, leaving little nutrition for remaining crops. And when prayers for rain are answered, such poor quality soil does not retain enough water. It is a bleak future for this soil and the potential of its people.

The World Food Programmeknows that it is essential to understand how to give back to the soil – without this we can’t continually expect it to keep giving. Degradation of soil health relates to crucial ecological issues, the nutritional value of crops and ultimately the health and wellbeing of the next generation.

In response to these learnings and the paramount importance of soil health, OmVed Gardens will be inviting soil professionals, chefs, local councillors and farmers from Ethiopia to share their knowledge on how to promote soil maintenance for optimum nutrition, carbon sequestration and water retention. We will continue to offer a platform that supports the World Food Programme through connectivity, knowledge, expertise and creativity. Compelled to narrate this as part of our ongoing advocacy, we will join them on their journey, which can support nations to become truly independent, in the long term.