Alternative food choices during crisis

A global food crisis is causing concern. Sri Lanka will also face a shortage of certain food items in the coming months. Fruits and vegetables are a vital part of our meals, especially for those adhering to a vegetarian diet. Many fruits and vegetables only grow in specific regions of Sri Lanka, in a particular type of soil, under certain temperature and humidity environments and at limited times of year. Fruits and vegetables are most attractive and healthy when harvested at their peak maturity. Fruits and vegetables are a major source of macronutrients such as fiber and micronutrients such as minerals and Vitamins C, thiamin, riboflavin, B-6, niacin, folate, A, and E. Phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables, such as polyphenolics, carotenoids, and glucosinolates, may also have nutritional value. Most fruits and vegetables are composed of 70–90% water and once separated from their source of nutrients (tree, plant, or vine) undergo higher rates of respiration, resulting in moisture loss, quality and nutrient degradation, and potential spoilage.

Vitamin C is water soluble and sensitive to heat, light, and oxygen making it susceptible to loss during both home cooking of fresh fruits and vegetables and thermal processing. For this reason, loss of Vitamin C is often used as an index of nutrient degradation. Fruit and vegetable processors must choose their products very carefully.

Globally year-long supplies of fresh food have been made possible by improvements in controlled storage conditions, shipping and importing. A fresh weekly food supply at the local supermarket has eliminated the need for home preservation and food processing of earlier days. But this condition is being challenged. Today, we may choose to preserve and process food for reasons besides availability such as the price of food, quality and nutrition. For these reasons, gardeners who find themselves with a surplus of fresh produce at the end of the harvest season in Sri Lanka must wisely decide to store and preserve. There are five methods of storing vegetables and fruit: drying, canning, curing and salting, freezing and common storage. Which method is chosen depends upon the type of produce, the quality desired and the facilities available for storage.

Preserving methods

One of the oldest ways to preserve produce is through drying. The basic procedure involves removal of moisture from the produce to a point where decay is not likely. This can be done by using an oven, a dehydrator or the warm natural heat of the sun. This was done by our prudent ancestors. Once finished, the produce should be stored in a dry place in air tight containers. Dried produce does not retain the quality found with fresh produce but it will guarantee a decent meal in difficult times. The process is also fairly labor intensive and time-consuming. However, certain produce, such as beans, peas and other legumes, can be dried without much loss.

A resurgence of interest in canning is taking place globally as it has become easier with more fool-proof methods, good equipment and safer pressure cookers. With the pressure cooker method, the produce is heated to kill microscope that can cause spoilage. This action also deactivates enzymes in the produce that affect flavour, texture and colour. Canning may incur added costs with the purchase of equipment, containers and general supplies but again it is a good option, rather than wasting an excess harvest. For most types of produce, higher food quality can be maintained with canning rather than drying.

If certain garden produce is allowed to ferment naturally, it is said to have become “cured.” This means that microorganisms initiate the fermentation process and change the food quality without causing bad tastes or toxins. The best example of natural curing is with cabbage that ferments into sauerkraut. A second way to cure food is by adding organic acid like vinegar to increase the acidity and limit microbial activity. When salt is added in sufficient quality, this too will control microbial action and effectively stop the growth of spoilage organisms. Curing and salting is not a common method of preserving garden produce because of the great change that it makes in the quality and overall taste.

A good way to preserve certain types of garden produce is through freezing. This method does not improve quality, but is fairly easy to do if one has access to a freezer and takes the time to package properly, so that moisture is retained. Like other preservation methods, freezing prevents microorganisms from growing causing spoilage. One large advantage of freezing is that the nutritional quality remains relatively good, plus food can be kept for many months. At present this is hard due to daily power cuts.

Vegetable and fruit storage

The method used to preserve most of the produce generated by our ancestors is referred to as common storage. This involves storing the harvested produce in a darkened, cool area. There are various ways where this can be done including leaving the produce in the ground, burying it in the ground in pits, storing in cellars and storing in wooden crates located in cool areas. Many older homes were built with cool pantries, enclosed porches or sheds specially built for vegetable or fruit storage. More vegetables than fruit can be stored; typically, they should not be mixed. Certain vegetables will differ in their temperature, humidity and ventilation requirements for storage resulting in optimum quality and reduced incidence of disease or decay. Gardeners and homeowners should consider storing only small quantities of fruit for any length of time. Overall, fruit keeps best when moved to an area that is about 32 degrees.

Alternative food sources within Sri Lanka can provide solutions to a rising urban demand for healthy foods, but only if recognized and treated as a fair alternative practice. In many countries urban farming is still considered controversial and non-metropolitan. Dried fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices are low-volume, high-value foods that can be profitable for small-scale processors if there is sufficient demand.

Because fresh fruits and vegetables are both bulky and spoil rapidly, it is better to locate a processing unit in the area where they are grown. This reduces transport costs and also reduces the amount of handling, which means that crops are more likely to be in good condition when they arrive at the processing unit. If they are in good condition, they can be stored for a few days before they have to be processed. Too much handling bruises them and they will spoil quickly. Large volumes of liquid wastes are created in fruit and vegetable processing and these should be carefully disposed of to prevent local pollution of streams or lakes.

The numbers of workers needed to operate a fruit or vegetable processing business depend on the amount of production and also on the degree of mechanization of the process. This type of processing is more seasonal and temporary staff can be employed during harvest times. Machinery such as a pulper finisher for juice preparation, or machines for filling and sealing packages, can significantly reduce the numbers of workers needed. Dried fruits and vegetables absorb moisture from the air and should therefore be packed in airtight, moisture-proof containers.

There is a growing trend in Sri Lanka’s major cities for higher juice consumption and this market will increase in future. We cannot waste any produce. Sauces can also be made from almost any combination of pulped fruit or vegetable, boiled with salt, sugar, spices and vinegar. Chutneys are made by boiling vegetables or sour fruits with sugar, spices and sometimes vinegar if there is little acid in the fruit. We can preserve fruits and veggies in this manner.

Vegetables may be packed in vinegar (acetic acid), salt and sometimes added sugar to produce a variety of pickled products that have a different flavor and texture to fermented pickles. Pastes and purees can be made from any fruit or vegetable, but the most common types in Europe are tomato and garlic pastes, used in cooking. They are made by mashing any fruit or vegetable to a smooth, thick consistency and then carefully boiling this puree to evaporate the water. We can alter our traditional cooking methods by infusing such products so that we have enough food and waste nothing.

According to Pradeep Ramachandran, Moringa, (native to India), grows in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It is commonly known as ‘drumstick tree’. Moringa can withstand both severe drought and hence is widely cultivated across the world. With its high nutritive value every part of the tree is suitable for either nutritional or commercial purposes. The leaves are rich in minerals and vitamins. Extracts from the leaves are used to treat malnutrition, augment breast milk in lactating mothers. It is used as a potential antioxidant, anticancer and anti-inflammatory agent. Dried moringa leaves can be used in many dishes. WHO has introduced moringa as an alternative food to overcome malnutrition.

Permaculture is another way to enhance food security. Permaculture can be understood as the growth of agricultural ecosystems in a self-sufficient and sustainable way. This form of agriculture draws inspiration from nature to develop synergetic farming systems based on crop diversity, resilience, natural productivity, and sustainability. It is basically a mixed food forest. Agro -forestry uses the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops or livestock. It combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, healthy and sustainable land-use systems. This augments our choice for alternate food options.

Crystallized, fruit peels (for marmalades or use in cakes) and osmotically dried fruits are fruit pieces that are soaked in hot fruits sugar syrups to extract some of the water before drying. This is a good alternative to fresh fruits in Sri Lanka and an ideal snack for children. All fruit and vegetable products should have a marketable quality and also be safe for consumers to eat. Even at the smallest scale of production, the processor should develop a Quality Assurance (QA) system to ensure this. We must break away from traditional perceptions of food and eating habits. Our attitude towards accepting change is the beginning of a new era of enjoying alternate food options in this challenging period. Importantly people in rural areas must change, but it will be difficult for most of them. We must set an example to children and slowly encourage them to be open to alternate food options. Sri Lanka must survive this impending crisis with a long term plan.

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