Centering Women in Food Safety Research to Create Sustainable Change
This post is written by Amanda Garris, Liz Alexander, Lauren Trondsen, and Haley Oliver, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety (FSIL).
From its inception, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety (FSIL) has sought to engage and empower women in research projects to increase access to safe, nutritious diets. Women are significant contributors in agricultural production, food processing and household food preparation, which all present strategic opportunities to prevent the spread of foodborne pathogens. Despite composing 43 percent of the global agricultural workforce and up to 60 percent in parts of Africa and Asia, women often have less access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets than men; fewer than 20 percent of the world's landowners are women, and female farmers receive only 5 percent of extension services globally. FSIL’s focus on food safety gaps in perishable, nutritious foods — including dairy, poultry, fish, and produce — also provides an opportunity to address the gender gap. Too often, gender is incorporated into research for development only by disaggregating data and indicators by gender or holding trainings for women. This is a great start, but it is unlikely to be transformative.
FSIL's approach centers women in the design of research and includes women as key stakeholders in shaping program priorities and activities. Research that begins with first understanding gendered roles, attitudes and knowledge relating to food safety, engages with women to set research priorities, and provides culturally appropriate training in science-based food safety practices will better position women to influence food safety decision-making in households, businesses and communities. Through six research projects in Africa and Asia, FSIL is challenging researchers to conduct transformational food safety research that centers women’s access to knowledge and resources to reduce foodborne illness.
Integrating Gender Across Food Safety Research Projects
To support the thoughtful integration of gender into food safety research, all of FSIL’s long-term research projects were required to develop a gender strategy, use gender-sensitive methods during project design and implementation, and include a gender advisor on the research team. FSIL’s approach to gender was developed using the Feed the Future Advancing Women’s Empowerment program report, Gender Integration in USAID’s Agricultural Research Investments: A Synthesis of Key Findings and Best Practices. FSIL’s Quarterly Gender Working Group meetings provide an opportunity for all project gender experts to share resources and tools. The gender specialists and the Gender Working Group have supported FSIL projects in testing a range of approaches for including and empowering women in diverse food safety research projects in Africa and Asia, as shared in the examples that follow.
Understanding Women’s Roles, Power and Resources
Assessing gender roles, decision-making power, and access to resources within the local and regional value chains provides the foundation for FSIL research and outreach. FSIL research projects incorporate landscape reviews of published research and surveys to understand the intersection of gender with food safety. For example, FSIL’s Kenya project recently published a literature review to synthesize current knowledge and practices on the roles of women in the Kenyan poultry value chain, highlighting the participation of women in raising, caring for and processing poultry on small farms and its impact on their risk of exposure to foodborne pathogens. Across the FSIL research portfolio, researchers conducting surveys to fill the gaps in understanding women's current roles in dairy production in Senegal, poultry production in Kenya and vegetable production in Cambodia. The nuanced understanding of gender roles in these value chains is key to developing targeted food safety outreach.
Building the Foundation for Social and Behavioral Change
Adoption of new food safety practices requires effective outreach programs that are informed by an understanding of current food safety perceptions, barriers, and local context. In FSIL projects, this is enabled by social science research to understand women’s current knowledge, attitudes and practices (KAPs) around food safety, as consumers, farmers, processors and vendors. For example, through a combination of surveys, structured interviews and focus groups, FSIL’s Cambodia project is assessing the impacts of gender, food safety perceptions and knowledge, time, capital, and decision-making dynamics on food safety. FSIL’s Bangladesh project is using surveys to understand KAPs among consumers as well as farmers, processors, wholesalers and retailers in the fish and chicken value chains to identify gendered attitudes, knowledge, and practices. FSIL’s Senegal project is using surveys to understand the baseline food safety KAPs of women involved in artisanal-scale dairy production and the implications of improved food safety for health, nutrition, and economic livelihoods. In Nepal, FSIL researchers are assessing awareness of food safety in fresh produce consumption among metropolitan households. Rigorous social science research is part of the FSIL strategy to ensure the food safety outreach is targeted, inclusive of women, culturally appropriate, and ultimately more effective in creating change.
Collaborating with Women to Set Food Safety Priorities
A persistent challenge in food safety is setting priorities, with numerous foodborne pathogens and potential control points within every value chain. By working directly with women to prioritize risks and identify feasible interventions, researchers can position projects for greater impact. Researchers with FSIL’s Kenya project collaborated with female farmers in peri-urban Nairobi to rank food safety risks and set priorities for research on food safety practices, adapting the method outlined in the FAO Guide to Ranking Food Safety Risks at the National Level. After an introduction to the risk ranking process and potential interventions to reduce the risk of foodborne disease, female farmers and local veterinary experts used an iterative review process to reach consensus about the highest food safety priorities. This inclusive and rigorous method is enabling the researchers to test targeted interventions and provide specific trainings shaped by the community’s values and priorities.
Fostering Collective Action Through Combined Leadership and Food Safety Training
Equipping women to be advocates within their community is another way to create change in food safety behaviors. To empower female farmers to collaborate and take collective action to strengthen food safety in their communities, FSIL’s Cambodia project has piloted a program that combines leadership training with a food safety workshop. Partnering with Banteay Srei, a local nonprofit focused on women’s self-empowerment, the project held one-day workshops where women identified their personal strengths and conducted risk assessments of the vegetable value chain. The workshop helped participants to recognize their potential for leadership and their role in producing safe vegetables for their communities. It was so successful that Banteay Srei requested the workshop materials to replicate the session and share the microbial food safety learnings with other female vegetable farmers. By simultaneously strengthening female farmers’ skills in leadership, collaboration and food safety, the workshops empowered them to improve food safety in their communities.
Partnering with Women Through Digital Tools
In many cultures, women bear the primary responsibility for family nutrition, thus daily navigating the barriers to safe and nutritious foods. FSIL’s Nigeria project is leveraging women’s insights through an app that enables them to document their lived experience with food safety and nutrition. Researchers are currently working with Stanford University to implement the Yoruba language and Nigerian cultural context in the Our Voice app to enable women to document assets, barriers, and challenges to feeding their families nutritious food through photos, audio narratives and notes. Their data will be the basis for in-depth discussions with researchers on obstacles, mitigation ideas and community assets that can impact access to safe and nutritious foods. This promising approach engages women as advocates to identify problems — as well as solutions — that will be elevated in discussions with healthcare leaders and local policymakers.
Strengthening Gender Research Capacity with Online Learning
Many countries face a shortage of social scientists trained in gender-sensitive research methods, and strengthening local capacity is key to addressing gender gaps across the food system. In FSIL’s Cambodia project, digital platforms — initially embraced because of pandemic travel restrictions — have been effective for providing training in gender-sensitive social science methods. Since 2020, over 200 students have been trained and certified in developing surveys and conducting human subject research through three online courses. Taught by researchers at the Royal University of Agriculture and Purdue University, the courses have covered qualitative and quantitative research methods, behavior change theory, feminist theory, research methodologies, and coding and analyzing data. The courses were not only effective in strengthening capacity in gender-sensitive research methods to meet the needs of the project, but they also attracted participants from other food system-related programs in Cambodia. Going forward, online learning may be a viable path to meet the need for in-country gender consultants and elevate gender issues in development projects.
Meeting a Higher Standard for Engagement with Women
FSIL has an overall goal of enhancing agricultural sustainability and global food security through research and engagement that increases access to safe and nutritious foods, leading to well-nourished communities. Across countries and value chains, women have untapped potential to impact food safety, and FSIL aimed to meet a higher standard of engagement with women by centering gender from the inception of each project and collaborating directly with women stakeholders across the life cycle of each project, which ensures that women's needs, priorities, and perspectives — as defined by them — addressed. Doing so has strategic advantages for building long-term, sustainable food safety progress. Equipped with knowledge of food safety practices, women — whether as parents, farmers, or entrepreneurs — will be well positioned to transfer this knowledge to their children and communities, creating a lifetime of change.