Will Bergmann is a foodie, so when his hosts in a remote Indian village began cooking, it just made sense to join in.
Bergmann, a farmer and restaurateur from Glenlea, watched a group of men lift a metal bowl, about three feet across, onto an outdoor clay oven. As one man fed the fire with leaves and sticks, others began chopping veggies. Another poured oil into the bowl and began to stir with a shovel-like implement.
Unable to speak their language, Bergmann gestured to ask if he could help. His hosts gave him the paddle and he stirred as they began to add spinach, peas, carrots, chickpeas and freshly ground spices.
He laughed as he recalled the scene — the only foreigner among about 15 locals, chickens running around. They were laughing at him — he’s not sure why.
“I’m never going to forget that,” he said. “We didn’t speak the same language but we did speak the same language of food, and you know kindness and community and all those things… we laughed and we smiled and we pointed at things and showed each other things.”
The ingredients going into the pot, however, signified more than a delicious meal. They signify progress and hard work on the part of the locals and Canadian Foodgrains Bank agricultural projects in that area.
Early this March, Bergmann’s journey took him to two different projects with CFGB partners. Tearfund Canada is supporting Evangelical Fellowship of India, Commission on Relief with a three-year agriculture and livelihoods project in the Pakur district in eastern India, said a spokesperson from CFGB.
The project works with marginalized hill tribe residents, whose location limits their access to safe water, health care and education.
Degraded natural resources and poor agricultural production further contribute to hunger.
The project is training about 650 households in natural resource management, sustainable agriculture practices and water storage symptoms. It is also helping severely malnourished children.
The second project Bergmann visited is an MCC-supported project of Asansol Burdwan Seva Kendra in the Birbham District of the West Bengal state.
According to CFGB, this is one of the poorest districts in the country and many people are malnourished.
The project supports farmers to increase rice and wheat production, promote new agricultural techniques, and train families in seed preservation and kitchen gardening.
Kitchen gardening, Bergmann explained, is simply growing vegetables for daily food and to increase nutrition in a diet that can sometimes be mostly rice and a little chicken.
“There’s been tremendous progress in terms of nutritional food being available for everyone,” he said.
The project works with about 420 households, said CFGB.
Bergmann said another key element of these projects is empowering women in agriculture. This has been shown to benefit communities tremendously.
He said in one area, he saw a women’s “self-help group” that collectively owned a flock of ducks.
The flock gave the women eggs for daily use, and as a group they decided when to breed the flock, when to slaughter and when to sell. They used the profits toward community projects — like sending kids to the next village to play soccer.
Bergmann said it was amazing to see “how proud they are of their agricultural successes.”
Relationship building is also very important. The projects foster relationships between community members, who are empowered to work together on improving food security and to solve problems.
At the MCC project, plant-spacing techniques had vastly increased farmers’ capacity to grow rice. However, with further-spaced plants, they’d also encountered much higher weed pressure.
A local MCC worker has a relationship with a professor specializing in weed management at a nearby university. They work together to solve weed issues and pass knowledge directly to the farmers.
Now that he’s home, Bergmann said he’s begun thinking about how to apply what he learned from the Indian farmers and CFGB workers.
“It’s important that we experience different cultures and we learn from each other,” he said. “I wasn’t going to India to think I was teaching them anything. I was fully learning. I definitely came back changed.”
He said he learned the difference between being hungry and being malnourished, which made him think about underserved communities in Manitoba where fresh, nutritious food is hard to get.
Bergmann, who runs a CSA vegetable garden with his wife Jen, said he’s not sure what action he’ll take, but he expects it will involve veggies.
“I very strongly believe we are all connected through food,” he said.