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Editor's note: Fellow Lauren Howe recently won the USAID Agrilinks Young Scholars Food Security Blog Contest with the following post about her work in Ethiopia with sweet potato leaves, which first appeared on the Agrilinks website

Research has shown that people may need to experience a new food 10-15 times before they will begin to accept it. For some farmers in the area of Wolaita Sodo in southern Ethiopia, however, it only took one taste of sweet potato leaves to convince them.

I’ve just wrapped up two weeks of field work supporting the NGO Send a Cow Ethiopia (SACE) as a student fellow from the Trellis Fund of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture. SACE is currently implementing a project titled, “Sweet Potato Leaves for Improved Family Nutrition,” which aims to train 50 smallholder farmers on how to harvest, prepare and consume sweet potato leaves as part of a healthy, diversified diet. After only a week of workshops, I was shocked by how easily farmers took to sweet potato leaves, a completely new ingredient.

Before this project, most farmers were entirely unaware that the leaves are edible for human consumption and only used them as animal fodder or for plant propagation. In planning my field work, SACE asked me if there was any particular research activity I’d like to conduct while in Ethiopia.

As a Master’s student at UC Davis, studying International Agricultural Development and specializing in International and Community Nutrition, I had spent my “Field Research Methods in International Nutrition” class designing a study to compare consumer acceptability of dishes with dehydrated versus fresh vegetables. I was struck by the idea of carrying out a modified version of the activity while in Ethiopia.

Excited, I suggested to SACE that we conduct a “blind” taste test of the same dish, sautéed greens, except that one would use sweet potato leaves and the other would include kale. I experienced first-hand, however, the difficulty of conducting a truly “blind tasting,” as the environment was not set up for individuals to give private feedback so as not to influence the opinions of others. Similarly, this was a practical training where we didn’t measure ingredients or cooking time, which meant that any number of factors could have influenced the exact outcome of each dish. Although this research experience did not have the academic rigor as originally designed, the activity was more indicative of what’s possible in the field and also a lively form of effective outreach!

Initial reactions from farmers to the sweet potato leaves were overwhelmingly positive — many farmers expressed a willingness and desire to discontinue their use of sweet potato leaves as fodder immediately, even preparing the leaves later that evening for dinner or the next day, which is remarkable. I hope that this effort will provide a reliable, drought-tolerant, nutritious food source, especially during the dry season when other leafy greens are not available.

Because this project is about knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP), it has tremendous potential to be sustainable over the long term. As SACE said, “for farmers, seeing is believing,” and because we were able to demonstrate and have the farmers participate in harvesting, cooking and eating the leaves, they now know firsthand that they are edible and delicious, and they have the support of some of their neighbors.

Because the language barrier limited my ability to communicate with farmers directly, I deeply appreciated how food is truly a universal language and the preparation, cooking and act of eating itself are relatable across cultures. Moreover, our taste test was also the day I realized that this project is a “Slow Food project” through and through. Before entering graduate school, I worked as a professional in the Slow Food movement, as the Manager of Community Engagement and School Gardens for the NGO Slow Food USA. This Trellis Fund project ideally merges my passion for cultivating community and sustainability through food and my goal to become more proficient in nutrition, especially for women and children in lower-income countries.

Upon further reflection, it makes sense that Slow Food ideas would fit so well with this project, which included a focus on building community through food.  This project is about creating tasty dishes to persuade people about the nutritional benefits of a new ingredient. It is gathering families, friends and neighbors to sit down to a communal meal (already a strong Ethiopian practice), breaking bread together, sharing stories, experiences and hopes for the future. It doesn’t really matter if farmers are able to accurately describe the texture or aroma of the dish — what matters is that they can sit together, enjoy it and be wholly convinced and supported by their community in this new culinary discovery.

Additional Resources

In addition to her field experiences video, Lauren also produced short piece about cooking and taste testing sweet potato leaves. You can view it and see additional photos from Lauren's work in Ethiopia on the Food Blog of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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