By Ndileka Swakamisa
An innovative initiative utilising a Facebook chatbot is set to curb the growing incidence of stunting – a phenomenon that affects 27% of South African children. This initiative is the brainchild of one of the country’s top pharmaceutical firms, and was developed in partnership with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA (HSFSA).
According to the latest Global Nutrition Report released last year, the prevalence of stunting in SA remains alarmingly high despite numerous interventions, such as the Integrated Nutrition Programme. South Africa ranks 70th out of 132 countries for stunting growth rates and is worse off than many other poorer countries such as Haiti, Senegal, Mauritania, Thailand and Libya.
Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics – an advocate for preventative healthcare and sponsor of the campaign – says that stunting has significant public health implications.
“Stunting refers to under development within the first 1000 days of a child’s life as a result of under – or malnutrition and is associated with delayed cognitive development, impaired physical growth and a greater risk of non-communicable disease, such as cardio-metabolic disease.”
She explains that people in general don’t realise the extent of stunting in SA and that it affects the poor and children from more privileged households alike.
“Thinness may indicate acute malnutrition, while obesity could be a sign of chronic malnutrition. It all boils down to how nutrition-rich a child’s diet is. These days, children snack on food that are energy-dense, but nutrient-poor, which leads to obesity, stunted growth and many other chronic illnesses,” explains Jennings.
Research shows that there has been a substantial increase in fast foods, cakes, biscuits and other packaged products in recent years, and when compared with the worldwide average consumption of 89 Coca-Cola products per person, per year in 2010, South Africans consumed a whopping 254 Coca-Cola products per person, per year – nearly three times the global average.
How does Pharma Dynamics’ initiative differ from others? According to Jennings, the initiative aims to complement existing feeding scheme programmes, whilst targeting low to middle income households that are considered equally vulnerable to stunting, but are often forgotten about.
The campaign will utilise an Internet chatbot, named Ginger, that will engage with SA mothers via Facebook around the dangers of malnutrition and assist primary caregivers in planning healthy meals on a shoestring budget. Meals will be based on the more than 100 recipes from the popular Cooking from the Heart cookbook series that carry the HSFSA’s stamp of approval.
Over the past five years, GPs and specialists have used Cooking from the Heart as a valuable resource in guiding patients at risk of chronic diseases of lifestyle, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes on how to make healthy eating a part of healthy living.
The HSF’s CEO, Pamela Naidoo says that Cooking from the Heart is one of the most thoroughly-researched recipe books available to the public for preventing heart disease and stroke and maintaining cardiovascular health. “It should really be everyone’s go-to cookbook when it comes to meal planning for healthy eating.”
All Cooking from the Heart recipes have been carefully selected to suit SA’s diverse palate and modified to fit a diet that is low in unhealthy fats, salt and sugar without compromising on taste. The recipes were all developed by well-known cookbook author and health food consultant, Heleen Meyer, alongside a team of dieticians from the HSFSA.
Jennings says once signed up, Ginger will provide followers with a weekly shopping list, advice on how to adapt meals based on a family’s individual needs and how to use leftovers in a nutritious and tasty way to limit food wastage.
“Think of Ginger as your personal nutritional consultant at home. She will offer you practical ‘swap it’ tips such as replacing salt with fresh herbs and spices or lemon for flavour, along with useful advice on how to incorporate more fibre into your diet, packing healthier lunchboxes for children and preparing healthier meals in general.
“The paradox of the chronic disease burden is that it can be lifted if we tackle the relationship between stunting and obesity – of which nutrition plays a vital role,” emphasises Jennings.
The campaign aims to reach about 200 000 mothers within a five-year period. Regular engagement via polls and Facebook tracking reports will also be done at various stages to determine the success of the campaign.
To sign up, visit the Cooking from the heart SA Facebook page and simply ‘opt in’ to the campaign.