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Harriet Kuhnlein

Harriet Kuhnlein 130 x 180I have always been fascinated by the diverse food and nutrition practices of the world’s peoples, and how food becomes available in so many different ways in different cultures. I grew up on a small asparagus and strawberry farm in southern New Jersey in the United States, surrounded by immigrant Italians and Caribbean migrant farm workers. They put new tastes on the foods familiar on our ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ table that originated with our dairy and chicken-beef-pork-farming relatives, and their gardens and orchards, in Pennsylvania and New York State.

My university training was at Pennsylvania State University, Oregon State University and the University of California at Berkeley. I was steeped in learning about issues related to food and culture; dietetics and health promotion; and food science and anthropology. During doctoral studies at UC Berkeley I first engaged with nutrition of Indigenous Peoples – looking at strontium and lead in the food environment of the Hopi of Arizona. Then as a professor of nutrition at the University of British Columbia (1976-1985) and McGill University (1985-current) I expanded this unique niche of research and teaching with many outstanding colleagues and collaborators engaged with the indigenous world.

Now as Emerita Professor, still guiding students and research activities, I realise how fortunate I have been to experience more than 40 cultures of Indigenous Peoples in different parts of the world, often in very economically poor and remote settings. In places like these one learns a great deal about how to use research for understanding the vast knowledge Indigenous Peoples have for their cultures and ecosystems that can be used to benefit not only their own health, but to benefit all of us on this planet. This necessarily requires careful reflection and public health action on human nutrition enmeshed in social, cultural, environmental, economic, and human rights sciences and practice. As Founding Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) at McGill I have worked with fascinating indigenous leaders and gifted colleagues, staff and students to contribute to the momentum for recognising and addressing the disparities in nutrition faced by Indigenous Peoples, particularly in their rural homelands.

I am a ‘good news’ person. I prefer to engage in research and public health work that calls attention to the good things in food systems, traditions and health, and to share this welcomed news in areas of food composition, cultural food practices, and dietary quality. Colleagues in our centre have successfully addressed the worrisome burdens of the nutrition transition, environmental threats, food insecurity, and the epidemiological statistics Indigenous Peoples’ experience. But it is the balanced approach of considering both benefits and risks in food systems that goes the farthest to engage Indigenous Peoples in the partnerships needed to solve their pressing nutrition problems in today’s complex world. It is also being able to genuinely say, ‘You have a lot to teach us about good food, good health and the good life.’

Since 2001 I have worked with an astonishing set of colleagues with CINE, supported and sponsored by a wide variety of agencies and funders. This effort is an activity of a Task Force of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences. In particular, I have enjoyed several months as visiting scientist with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and in the Bangkok region, during two sabbatical leaves. Community leader partners and academic partners in our current 12 case studies are completing the third book in our series that documents the vast biodiversity Indigenous Peoples know in their food systems and how they can devise and evaluate nutrition intervention activities to improve health in their communities. We have met several times in exchange and planning sessions in Italy at the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation, and have produced several documentary videos. Check us out! www.indigenousnutrition.org and www.mcgill.ca/cine. And more due credit: the picture of me is by kpstudios in Anacortes.