As a student in nutrition and international development, I have strived to develop a variety of skills in the fields of food security and nutrition. My experiences so far have convinced me that ensuring global food security requires a breadth of measures, from the lab to the field, in order to attain sustainable solutions to these pressing problems.
As a student at the University of Illinois, I conduct research in Food Science and Human Nutrition, under the direction of Dr. Juan Andrade. I analyze fortified blended foods to test for values of specific micronutrients. Although vitamins and minerals are vital for health, vitamin deficiencies are not immediately physically evident, unlike calorie deficiency, or ‘starvation.’ But micronutrient deficiencies can be just as detrimental as calorie deficiency, leading to health problems like blindness, mental impairment, and even death. Fortifying these vitamins and minerals into foods is therefore an important solution that not only requires insight into food chemistry but also sociology and economics. For example, I analyzed Corn Soya Blend, which is a porridge given to children in school lunch programs worldwide by the World Food Programme and USAID. It contains a bountiful supply of micronutrients, but through our analysis we learned that when the product is improperly prepared, the nutrients are severely diminished, because vital nutrients can be destroyed through high cooking temperatures, sunlight, and humid storage conditions. I realized that the interventions necessary to resolve these issues depend on technical expertise as well as careful consideration of the entire supply chain and sociological influence, such as educating caregivers on the proper preparation techniques and storage.
My field experience in Latin America taught me about nutrition interventions beyond technical laboratory work. In my field research, I supported a PhD candidate’s analysis of the correlation between food security, diet diversity, coping strategies, and other livelihood factors in rural Honduras and Guatemala. We traveled to several rural communities and went door-to-door surveying households on these indicators. Suddenly, the effects of malnutrition were no longer a dataset for me, but a child with cloudy eyes whose height falls far below their developmental average.
I found that one point of strategy and critical thinking in the field involved properly navigating households’ dynamics and gender roles. I knew that evidence shows that investing in mothers often leads to more benefits for those in the household, especially children, and had prepared myself to be sensitive to a machismo culture. In our surveys, we primarily interviewed mothers about household diets, since they typically prepare the food and are well-aware of their children’s diets. But I noticed that if their husband was listening, women were hesitant to report that they were struggling to feed their children. When entering a household, we began taking the male head of household aside while we surveyed the mothers. While this practice allowed women to speak candidly with us, it raised questions in my mind about how leaving men out of community development may be perpetuating the lack of community growth and sustainability.
We also conducted public health education in the communities we surveyed. At the local primary school, we held a puppet show featuring soccer players as an entertaining vehicle to encourage kids to choose fruits and vegetables. We also held a nutrition education course for local mothers to provide an overview of the value of a diverse diet both for children and adults, and to answer questions about feeding their families. Understandably, the concept of a calorie was very difficult to grasp for these women: equating calories to energy, many women logically assumed coffee is high in calories, and often chose products that were high in sugar and fat to obtain energy throughout the workday. I discovered that leading this kind of nutrition education is especially nuanced, given that many caregivers had less than a fourth grade education. In this context, I learned that educating both children and adults on health behaviors requires a breadth of insight on nutrition as well as communication skills that are culturally appropriate.
As I look forward to pursuing graduate studies in nutrition, I seek to further explore innovative strategies for addressing the scientific, social, and economic issues surrounding micronutrient deficiencies worldwide. Further research in the cultural acceptability and sustainability of fortified foods and changes in dietary behaviors cannot be accomplished without an interdisciplinary approach. A food secure world will require that boundary lines between sociologists, food chemists, economists, and public health specialists are blurred as professionals embrace the multifaceted issue of global development.
Elise Ellinger is a fourth-year BS candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign studying nutrition and development economics, and an intern with The Chicago Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative.