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A Glimpse across the World

Profile: Miriam Chaiken

Miriam Chaiken discusses her research into food. 1:41,  MB

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Part of being engaged in the community is knowing the issues its people face. On a larger scale, that includes the rest of the world—a community most of us know only through newspapers, books, and television. But, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, there’s help in building that awareness from professors who have traveled the globe for their research.

Anthropology professor Miriam Chaiken has studied success strategies in the frontiers of the Philippines. She has observed behavioral signs of food stress in Mozambique—villagers following grain trucks to pick a handful of seeds from the ground; parents feeding their children the husk of the millet, typically reserved for goats and chickens, to ease their hunger pangs. In Kenya, she prepared locals to be the nutrition educators, clinic coordinators, and support networks for their communities.

For Chaiken’s students, taking a seat in her class is the closest thing to hopping on a plane, rolling up their sleeves, and experiencing those issues firsthand.

Lack of food in impoverished areas has been a focus of Chaiken’s work. Named Nutritional Anthropologist of the Year in 2007 by the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, Chaiken emphasizes to students that, while a third of the world’s population lives in abundance, another third lives with great shortages of food—often because of circumstances beyond the people’s control.

She uses Mozambique as an example. After a twenty-year civil war, villagers are working to piece their lives and economy back together despite limited land and no access to irrigation, fertilizer, and other farming necessities. “These are people who work harder than any of us will ever imagine working, and yet they have so little to show for those efforts,” she said.

Equipping local people with skills to help their families and communities—in essence, teaching a man to fish—has been a common theme in her work, done largely through humanitarian-aid organizations like UNICEF and Save the Children.

Chaiken recently wrote a report for Save the Children on a two-year study in Malawi that involved use of a new product, a nutritionally dense food based on peanut butter, to rehabilitate severely malnourished children. From top to bottom, it was a community-based therapy: The parents provided the nourishment, and it was made from peanuts, a product grown throughout Africa.

“We’re finding some solutions that are culturally sensitive, sustainable, and inexpensive,” Chaiken said. “It involves training and empowering local people, and they take it from there.”

Miriam Chaiken on site for one of research projects

On the surface, much of her work seems far removed from Indiana, Pa., but Chaiken ties it together, so that students realize their interconnections with people around the world.

She uses the example of buying produce at the local grocery store. Customers have no say over whether their broccoli is from Guatemala or Pennsylvania; the produce manager makes that decision. “We’re all influenced by factors well beyond our control, and most of us are not very mindful of that,” she said.

Chaiken also talks to students about the Slow Foods Movement, an opposition to fast foods and processed foods that are shipped great distances to local grocery shelves. “That means eating local foods and supporting local producers, so the food travels less far, and there’s less of a carbon footprint for that food to end up on your table,” Chaiken said.

In a study she dubbed the “Death of Cooking Project,” an Anthropology undergraduate helped her record digital photographs of the groceries shoppers ages eighteen to thirty were buying. Soft drinks and processed foods were in abundance, indicating a lack of cooking at home.

“Knowledge of cooking is an important part of our cultural knowledge,” she said. “I hope students learn how to make those recipes with their families.” It’s a topic she also tackled in a  Time Magazine story as one of a handful of anthropologists quoted about the challenges of preserving cultural identity through food.

While Chaiken has her opinions, she doesn’t tell students what to do or think. Her goal is to raise awareness and get them to ask questions, whether about food choices or larger issues in anthropology. “My goal is to help them be analytical and a little bit skeptical,” she said. “If I can get them to ask the right questions, they’ll be launched on the process of self-discovery.”

Making her job a little easier are the small class sizes at IUP, resulting in a high level of faculty-student interaction. Chaiken uses her own college experience as a comparison: While the average class at IUP has fewer than thirty students, Chaiken was one of about four hundred in her freshman anthropology class at Arizona State. As a graduate student working as a teaching assistant at UC Santa Barbara, she taught classes of more than a thousand.

“That’s what sets IUP apart,” she said. “Students have daily interaction with professors, they get involved with professors’ research programs, and they have opportunities to get professional experience, even as undergraduates.”

Having spent years halfway across the world, Chaiken’s research and experiences have influenced many aspects of her life: her home décor, her cooking (she competed with her African Ground Nut Stew on the Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown in February 2008), and, of course, her teaching.

“I try to weave my research and my experiences into every class that I teach,” she said. “I could teach without those experiences, but I think it would be a lot less rich.”

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