August 9, 2019
The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.
Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?
Answer: I grew up in Buffalo NY, where there are so many beautiful waterways. In undergrad I was part of a research lab examining heavy metal and biological toxins in species that are important to sport fishers. That was when I learned about how polluted the waterways were, and how that shaped who was able to eat those foods.
That experience took me from environmental pollution to human consumption and nutrition angle. Many of the low income community members in Buffalo are subsistence fishers, so it’s not only sport fishers that use this resource. It struck me as really unjust that these already vulnerable communities were also bearing the burden of this pollution in the waterways.
I followed the food and environmental justice path and was awarded a Fulbright to work with First Nations communities in the Canadian Arctic. Depending on what people are eating, these environmental toxins can bioaccumulate and have severe effects on the body. These communities have nothing to do with the pollution that is deposited there, but through hydro and geological processes they feel the impact in their food systems.
Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
A: My current question is about how water insecurity shapes infant and young-child feeding. We often think about issues of water insecurity in terms of growing crops, which is of course important, but it can also shape decisions at the household level. On a large scale, water insecurity is affecting which crops are being grown, but water insecurity also affects also what households are cooking. Water insecurity in the household can result in decreased dietary diversity, which is an indicator for childhood stunting.
I’m part of a research consortium that has thirty sites around the world to understand the issues of household water insecurity. Our early research is showing that not having enough water can change the types of food being fed to children, specifically children from 6-23 months old which is a really important time for development.
At six months it’s important to introduce new foods beyond breast feeding because at that age breast milk no longer meets all the caloric and micronutrient requirements for a growing child. Parents are saying that they don’t have enough water to cook these important foods, so that could be one reason why children are not getting those nutrients. In India, nearly ⅓ of children are too short for their age, which is driven in part by not having enough caloric and micronutrient food, and water insecurity could be an underlying cause of that.
Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
A: There are several innovations that are supporting food processing in rural communities. For example farmer cooperatives where instead of building an expensive food processing plant, people coming together to package food and cut out middlemen to increase the money going to small-holder farmers. Mobile processing units are another good example for small communities that don’t need a whole factory, or even need it year round. Then the unit can move to where it’s needed throughout the growing season. I think these ideas could have real implications for farmers globally.
Q: What’s your favorite food?
A: Today I’m feeling grilled pineapple, because it’s sweet and goes well with everything.