Food for Thought

By Anna Carmichael '18

ichaela Brown interviews villagers in India
Michaela Brown ’18 interviews villagers in India about their dietary diversity.

Among the rice, vegetable curries, and Maharashtra roti breads on a family’s table, Michaela Brown ’18 was looking for clues to dietary diversity in South India.  Brown tracked families’ typical fare while interning with the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative (TCi) this summer, as a part of a project with ICRISAT, the non-profit International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

The internship combined two of Brown’s interests: food and international development, while giving her the opportunity to conduct research and work with professionals in the field.

Brown, a food science major and international development studies minor, worked alongside four other Cornellians in Hyderabad, India, to study the range of foods people eat as an indicator of how healthy their diet is. Last summer’s TCi interns created a tool to measure dietary diversity, and this summer Brown and other interns took it into the field to validate it, determining how accurate the tool was in measuring the overall nutrition of an area.

“Dietary diversity serves as a good indicator of nutrition,” said Brown. “Eating a wide range of food groups is important because each food group contributes to nutrition in a different way. Without a diverse diet, all necessary macro and micronutrients cannot be obtained.”

She was paired with an enumerator, Vidya, who was fluent in Telugu and had previously spent time in the villages.

“Her role was absolutely crucial for the data we collected,” Brown said. “It was important that she had relationships with the people in the villages.”

Together they visited rural villages to conduct household surveys, asking families what they had eaten for the past three days. Brown and Vidya followed the Food and Agriculture Organization’s guidelines to calculate a dietary diversity score based on the number of food groups eaten.

“The villager’s time is really valuable, so it was really amazing that they took time out of their day to talk to us,” she said. “Their hospitality and kindness was truly wonderful, and it was great to see that they appreciated the research that we do.”

Brown appreciated the in-depth, practical experience in research. She learned from Vidya, who was experienced in different kinds of research, from nutritional surveys to data analysis.

“Since we were validating the tool from last summer, we had to refine it, do the actual data collection, and complete the data entry,” Brown said. “Data entry wasn’t so fun, but after entering the data, we analyzed it, and it was really rewarding to see how the data combined to give us our results.”

Brown noted that while poverty is being alleviated in India, but there is still a long way to go. The experience broadened her outlook on food and nutrition.

“For me now, it’s important to see agriculture from many different perspectives—not just producing food but considering culture, development, and so much more,” she concluded.