IUP Professor honored as the 2007 Nutritional Anthropologist of the Year

Posted on 5/8/2008 8:40:32 AM

Addressing food access and food insecurity as a global problem, Dr. Miriam Chaiken, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor, was recently honored as the 2007 Nutritional Anthropologist of the Year by the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

“Anthropologists use cross cultural knowledge to address food access and food insecurity,” said Dr. Chaiken, whose research and focus is nutritional anthropology in third world countries.  “We have unique perspectives that bridge the gap between macro and micro-level perspectives because we understand better than others the cultural contexts of food production, allocation and use.”

Dr. Chaiken, who has taught anthropology courses at IUP for 20 years, completed her dissertation in the Philippines where she studied the means to successful adaptation on a tropical frontier.  Later in her career, she worked with UNICEF Kenya to improve child nutrition and survival.  She has also served as President of the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, established in 1974.

While her research in nutritional anthropology and her service to professional organizations have targeted chronically malnourished children, Dr. Chaiken said that her role in teaching is an even bigger mission. 

“I see the bigger mission is having students embrace and realize their role as global citizens,” she said.  “I want them to be aware of inequality in food access and be aware of their enormous privilege relative to so many people in the world.”

For those who are not so fortunate, she explained, “The deck is stacked against them. While partly attributable to global climate change, as droughts are more common, the real root of the problems of poverty and hunger are linked with long histories of colonial exploitation, population growth, government policies that favor the wealthy rather than the poor, and other complex factors. It is important to remember that virtually everywhere, when we are talking about the poorest of the poor, we are talking about women and children. When food is scarce, most adults can whether the storm.  Children can not.”

Statistics are grim for many children in undeveloped countries, where there are enormous food insecurities.

“You need food for metabolism, for growth, and for activity,” she said.  When children don’t receive adequate food, first they cut back on activities and become very passive, then their growth becomes stunted, and finally malnutrition compromises their metabolic function and they become very susceptible to infection. Chronic nutritional deficiencies cause diminished intellectual capacity. These are very serious problems because they affect so many children, for example, in the area I’ve been working in  “In Mozambique, 50 percent of children are stunted and not growing.  Children die from organ failure and infections from malnutrition.  Chronic nutritional deficiencies causes diminished intellectual capacity.”

Dr. Chaiken has worked with organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children which try to improve agricultural production, provide peer education and access to technology and knowledge.  For women, the programs might target better hygiene, household nutrition and strategies for treating children with severe malnutrition.

“Despite the urgent need to address emergencies, relief should not be our first priority,” Dr. Chaiken explained.  “Relief is sometimes necessary, but the real priority should be development programs that build on local strengths and remedy the root causes of the problems of food insecurity.  We need to empower parents and incorporate local participation in these programs.  Local projects work when parents are involved, and mobilizing participation is not difficult as every parent wants their children to be healthy and happy.  We can provide resources and successfully rehabilitate even severely malnourished children at home with community-based strategies. Traditionally, a severely malnourished child would be sent to a hospital or clinic and be accompanied by a parent.  This places undue hardship on the family as the mother has to also cater to the needs of other children and contribute to subsistence production.

Better nutrition will improve child survival rates, she said.  A highly successful program instituted several years ago, she noted, is providing Plumpynut, a ready-to-eat, pre-packaged, high protein peanut butter and powdered milk-based food used to reverse malnutrition in severely malnourished children in their homes, rather than a hospital.  She noted that we have ample evidence that there are multiplier benefits from improving rates of child survival. When children live, their parents are more inclined to use family planning, population growth begins to decline, and standards of living improve. But the first step is improving children’s access to adequate and quality food supplies.

Accomplishing this goal is daunting, as food access is directly linked with global security problems. Citing the State of the World’s Children, a UNICEF-produced annual report, Dr. Chaiken said, “The bottom 10 countries are where there is political and civil unrest.  Nine are in sub-saharan Africa and the other is Afghanistan.”

“If we’re concerned about the security of our country—terrorism, economics--we have to care about the standard of living in poor countries,” she said.  “We can go back to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  We need to overcome stereotypes about poor people in third world countries being lazy.  They are incredibly hardworking and resourceful.  Why shouldn’t we use our wealth to help?  I hope to challenge my students to recognize the linkages between our lives and actions and the lives of others across the world. We need to recognize that the US government provides far less humanitarian aid than many countries, and that as citizens of this country we have a right to know how our tax dollars are used, and to influence our legislators in setting the priorities for foreign aid, among other issues. I hope they come to realize that we’re all in this together.”