THE saying that the skies affect what passes underneath is attested to, albeit in less picturesque terms, by what's happening to vegetable vendors in Cebu and other areas of Central Visayas.

Due to the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, vegetable growers in Region 7 have been having smaller harvests, reported Sun.Star Cebu's Justin K. Vestil last July 4.

Updates on President Benigno Aquino III's presidency

The impact of extreme weather conditions on vegetable supply will trickle down to farmers, vendors and consumers.

Eased out of budgets and diets

Vestil reported that some vendors in the major wet markets, such as Carbon Public Market in Cebu City, resort to importing vegetables from Mindanao and other areas.

Importation drives up prices. Higher prices for lesser quantity of vegetables will not just move this essential source of vitamins and minerals from household budgets but will also open diets to cheaper but less healthy substitutes.

Cebu City now ranks fifth in the top five cities in Central Visayas that report high malnutrition rates.

Although Region 7 recorded lower incidences of malnutrition than in 2009, Vestil reported in Sun.Star Cebu's July 8 issue that the National Nutrition Council (NNC) also ranked the Cebu towns of Ronda and Dalaguete as second and eighth in the list of Central Visayas municipalities high in malnutrition.

According to the same report, the NNC 7 said the immigration of indigents from other areas to Cebu City and the lower priority given by local governments to health and food security programs have contributed to the rise of malnutrition among the children in Cebu City, Ronda and Dalaguete.

Healthy habits

Poverty is not an insurmountable obstacle to nutrition and health.

At home, nutrition is determined by parents, points out the NNC 7. Neighborhood stores briskly sell packets of ready-to-cook noodles, including a "malunggay"-flavored variation, because busy or lazy parents find this convenient and cheap. Several brands are aggressively advertised on primetime TV.

High on preservatives, each packet costs P6-P10. In contrast, for P5, one can buy five or more stalks of "malunggay (scientific name: Moringa oleifera; known as horseradish in English)" to yield the leaves, which mixed with leftover fish, chicken or other vegetables, make a soup rich in calcium, iron, ascorbic acid and phosphorus.

It is even better to plant the "poor man's vegetable" in one's backyard because it requires little or zero maintenance. Scientists and health care workers hail malunggay as the "miracle tree" or "nature's medicine cabinet" because many of its parts, from leaves to flowers and pods, are proven to have anti-oxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-fungal and anti-tumor properties, to name a few.

Next to the home, schools are crucial for inculcating the value of health. The Department of Education (DepEd) observes Nutrition Month in July. Its Memorandum 293 established the "Gulayan sa Paaralan," a project targeting the creation of school gardens to sustain supplementary feeding among public school students.

While the private sector can adopt a school or contribute to regular school feeding programs for underweight students, school gardens promote self-reliance, participation and sustainability.

Through a tie-up with the Department of Agri-culture's "Programang Agricultura para sa Ma-sa," the DepEd targets using school gardens to address hunger and malnutrition, which are the top two factors that lead to students dropping out from school or not performing well.

According to the DepEd website, the gardens will meet deficiencies in protein through legumes; energy through root crops, and vitamins and iron through "malunggay," "saluyot," "gabi" leaves, "kangkong," "kulitis," "alugbati" and "petchay."

The gardens will not only serve as food baskets but also laboratories for students to apply and learn organic gardening, such as Bio-Intensive Gardening and Food Always in the Home technologies.

Since poor nutrition is also a product of lack of vigilance, the DepEd should strictly implement Order 8 of 2007, which requires school canteens to serve only nutrient-rich foods and fortified food products, as well as enforce food safety and proper hygiene among canteen concessionaires and food vendors selling near schools.