Today, students of Mundika High School in western Kenya will be greeted by a spread of nutritious local vegetables with exotic-sounding names, like a spider plant. This hasn’t always been the case, a few years ago indigenous food had disappeared from Kenyan plates and was replaced with cheap foreign-derived food such as maize mal and cabbage.

“The first time we introduced indigenous African leafy vegetables in a school meal programme, we didn’t know how the students would respond,” said Aurillia Manjella, an agricultural consultant who helped Mundika high, and several other schools, integrate traditional foods into their menus.

Turns out, she had no cause to worry. The indigenous meal proved to be a hit. The students took to it at once.

Mundika High School is one of several institutions across Kenya, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Turkey that have made the switch to local foods with the help of an initiative backed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners

Called the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project, it aims to address the narrowing variety of people’s diets at a time when nutritionally-poor processed foods are dominating dinner plates. “This project is an example of how bringing together international and national partners across the agriculture, environment, health and education sectors can improve ecosystem health and create resilient environments and communities,” said Marieta Sakalian, a senior manager with UNEP. 

“We wanted to provide the science to show that these indigenous vegetables and fruits are better for you, and are not detrimental to environmental or human health,” said Teresa Borelli, a researcher from the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, which was part of the nutrition project.

All over the world, three staple crops – maize, wheat, and rice account for over 50% of calories consumed. These grains have replaced traditional fare in most parts of the world primarily because it’s cheaper to produce.

However, local foods are often hardier and more nutritious than their exotic counterparts.