Food Sovereignty, Nutrition, and Household Food Safety: Andrea Bersamin Builds a Community-Driven Approach to Food Security
This post was written by Meeri Kim, a freelance writer for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety.
Every class taught by Andrea Bersamin, professor in the Department of Biology and Wildlife at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, begins with a rundown of her favorite childhood reading materials.
At a young age, she begged her mother for a subscription to Bon Appétit, a monthly cooking and culinary arts magazine, and had a unique fascination with the world’s best-selling medical textbook, the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. She and her sister reveled in a series of detective books, which instructed the reader on how to become a skilled sleuth.
Bersamin tells her students that the texts serve as evidence of her early interest in food, health and research. Today, she has a career that spans these three subjects, focusing broadly on the prevention of nutrition-related health disparities among underserved, minority youth and their families. More recently, she has started to look at food safety through a nutrition lens as principal investigator of a project titled, “Strengthening household and community food safety in Nigeria,” funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety.
“We live in a society where there are many inequities with respect to access to healthy food,” says Bersamin, who is also a professor of nutrition at the Center for Alaska Native Health Research. “Ultimately, what I’m interested in is food security and — when it comes to my work with indigenous people — food sovereignty, which is peoples’ right to healthy and culturally appropriate foods and their right to define their own food systems.”
For more than 15 years, she has conducted research on the nutrition and health of Yup’ik Alaska Native peoples, who inhabit 52 villages scattered in the southwestern part of the state, near the coast of the Bering Sea. The communities, with between 200 and 1,000 people each, are located in extremely remote areas.
“When we travel to communities [to] collect data, it can take close to a day because we take a flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Anchorage to the hub city and then we get on a bush plane,” she says. “Yup’ik communities have a dual food system where they either get highly processed, shelf-stable foods flown in on these bush planes, or they practice subsistence.”
Yup’ik people still have a very vibrant, traditional food culture, and almost everyone maintains the age-old practice of living off the land. People fish, hunt land and marine mammals and birds, and collect plants, berries and eggs for consumption. Initially, her studies investigated the relationship between traditional food intake and health outcomes. For example, she found that Yup’ik individuals who practice a more subsistence lifestyle and eat more subsistence foods have better health outcomes than those who do not.
Later, Bersamin shifted her work to developing culturally grounded interventions that could help strengthen the traditional food system. One growing issue is that children tend to eat much less traditional foods than adults, possibly driven by school breakfasts and lunches that do not reflect traditional dietary patterns.
“As they enter higher-risk age groups, there was a concern that these kids would have an elevated risk of chronic disease that historically has been really rare in these communities,” Bersamin says. “We didn’t see a lot of obesity, heart disease or diabetes before, but we’re seeing those conditions more now.”
She led the design of a nutrition intervention called Neqa Elicarvigmun, or the Fish-to-School Program, using a community-based participatory approach. The program focused on reconnecting middle and high school students with their local, traditional food system by promoting fish at the individual and community level.
Salmon was introduced into school lunches, sourced from the local fish processor, which in turn buys fish from community members practicing subsistence. Bersamin and her colleagues also taught students about how the food they choose to eat affects not only personal health but also the health of the overall community and environment. Students who participated in Neqa Elicarvigmun had better diet quality, greater fish intake and more favorable attitudes toward traditional foods relative to their counterparts in a comparison group.
Her latest project not only represents a shift in location from Alaska to Nigeria, but it also incorporates food safety into her research for the first time. The Food Safety Innovation Lab-backed study aims to identify strategic, feasible activities to mitigate and prevent household foodborne illnesses in Nigeria. Exposure to foodborne pathogens contributes to a vicious cycle of illness and malnutrition, impacting young children’s development and nutritional status.
“There’s been a lot of research on food safety in Nigeria at the production and distribution levels, but not at the household level, and the household is where the food is being prepared, especially for kids,” says Bersamin. “So this project focuses on understanding household vulnerability to foodborne illness. We hope that it makes a contribution to the research in food safety by making links between food safety risk, pathogen prevalence, and child nutritional status.”
The researchers are employing a data-gathering technique known as Our Voice, which enlists and empowers Nigerian mothers to become citizen scientists. The women are given smartphones with an app that allows them to document their lived experience of feeding their family safe and nutritious foods by prompting them to take photos and write text messages.
Afterwards, Bersamin and her colleagues plan to include the mothers in a discussion with policymakers and clinicians to propose realistic, effective ways to improve food security and safety at the household level.
“I’m really excited about this project, which includes six co-investigators with expertise in nutrition, food safety and microbiology,” she says. “From my perspective, I’m able to use a community-based approach, working with families and applying some of the methods that we’ve used in nutrition to understanding food safety.”
Bersamin will collaborate with partners at three Nigerian institutions — Bowen University, Obafemi Awolowo University and the University of Ibadan — along with Utah State University. The project will begin with an initial household survey of food safety awareness, levels of foodborne pathogens and child nutritional status before launching the Our Voice component of the research.
“Most of my work has been done with families and children. If food is being prepared in the home, that’s where much of the contamination can happen,” Bersamin says. “We need to understand why certain actions are being taken and the common barriers to food safety at a household level. In order to find meaningful solutions, we need to understand those contextual issues.”