The sweet potato was chosen to highlight its role in improving the nutrition and health of millions of children and women throughout sub-Saharan Africa
For the first time, this year’s crop in the U.S. White House kitchen garden included orange sweet potato (OSP), a root vegetable rich in vitamin A, that is becoming popular in Africa. The sweet potato was chosen to highlight its role in improving the nutrition and health of millions of children and women throughout sub-Saharan Africa by providing essential vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a major public health problem in many countries. It impairs immunity, increases the risk of illnesses such as diarrheal disease, and causes eye damage that can lead to blindness and even death. Annually, up to 500,000 preschool children go blind from VAD, and about two-thirds will die within months of going blind. In Africa, VAD prevalence is estimated at 42 percent among children under five.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is now funding efforts to provide 285,000 Ugandan farming households not only with orange sweet potato but also beans that are richer in iron, as part of the US Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future.
“Through Feed the Future, President Obama’s landmark food security initiative, we are scaling up the use of orange sweet potatoes in thousands of communities vulnerable to undernutrition and stunting,” said USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah. “In the last year alone, we have helped seven million farmers boost their harvests with new technologies like this, and reached 12.5 million children to tackle undernutrition—one of the leading contributors to child death that also undermines global growth.”
Orange fruits and vegetables, dark leafy greens, and animal products are good sources of vitamin A but are not always available, or may be too expensive in some regions. In many part of sub-Saharan Africa, people eat large amounts of staple foods like sweet potatoes. However, the types commonly eaten are yellow and white in color and a poor source of vitamin A. The orange varieties are extremely rich in vitamin A and have been adapted to growing conditions in Africa, and to local tastes. In addition to being a rich source of vitamin A, orange sweet potato is also high yielding, virus resistant, and drought tolerant. In Africa, the crop is also referred to as orange-fleshed sweet potato.
Farming communities in Uganda, where orange sweet potato is now being grown on a large scale as a result of US Government assistance, have substituted more than one-third of their traditional white and yellow sweet potatoes with orange varieties. This has helped to ensure that large numbers of children and women receive their daily needs for vitamin A. One study found that in these communities orange sweet potato contributed to more than half of the vitamin A intakes of young children aged 6 months to 3 years old. This is notable because the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, counted from the start of a woman’s pregnancy until the child is two years old, is the most critical period of growth and development. All it takes is one ice-cream scoop’s worth of orange sweet potato to provide a young child with his or her daily vitamin A requirement. Farmers are also able to sell their surplus crop to earn extra income.
Agnes Amony, a Ugandan farmer who is part of this project, says: “I began feeding my child on these nutritious foods following the knowledge I attained in the recommended feeding practices for children under five. My child began gaining weight steadily and I am in no doubt that these foods have saved my child’s life. I am forever grateful and will never stop feeding my child on these food crops.”
In the mid-1990s, USAID played a seminal role in convincing agricultural scientists that improving yields of staple food crops was not enough—they also had to make them more nutritious. Vitamin A-rich OSP emerged as one of the first nutritionally-enhanced—and most successful—staple food crops to date.
Under First Lady Michelle Obama, the White House kitchen garden has been expanded and reinvigorated to include a wide range of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. It serves to educate people, especially children, on the importance of good nutrition and the role that vegetables and fruits can play in improving health. The sweet potatoes that were planted in the garden were provided by North Carolina State University (NCSU) and include Covington, a variety developed at NCSU, and Beauregard, a variety developed at Louisiana State University. Beauregard has become one of the most popular OSP varieties, and is being grown as far afield as northern Brazil.