I was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1963 into a family with strong European traditions Swedish on my father’s side and German and Czech on my mother’s side, which has shaped my identity, values and curiosity about the world. My interest in nutrition was sparked during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Images of the devastating famines in sub-Saharan Africa on television aroused my social justice sensibilities. I became a vegetarian after receiving a Moosewood restaurant cookbook as a gift. In the 1980s I studied nutrition at Cornell and also spent a year studying social and political sciences at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Thereafter, I pursued a master’s degree in nutrition at Case Western Reserve University and completed a dietetic internship at the university hospitals of Cleveland.
In 1990, I moved to New York City. I worked as an HIV nutrition specialist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and then left the clinical setting to create a nutrition program at a community-based organization that provided nourishing meals to homebound people living with HIV and AIDS. In the days when treatment options were limited, there was no need to leave the United States to see malnutrition.HIV-positive people wasted away before your eyes from secondary infections and nutrition-related complications.
In the mid-1990s, I moved back to Cornell and spent the rest of that decade working with nutrition policy pioneer, David Pelletier, who profoundly influenced my thinking about how effectively to translate nutrition research into supportive policies. He had adapted a data-driven, nutrition surveillance approach, drawing from his years of international work with Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Urban Jonsson and John Mason, to a decisions-driven, data-on-demand approach. This was called community-based nutrition monitoring. It engaged stakeholders early in the problem-framing and solution-generating process to improve food security and diets of communities.
In 2000, I moved to Washington DC, and spent five years staffing several expert committees at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies that focused on childhood obesity prevention. I also coordinated the International Food and Nutrition Forum that convened representatives from government, non-governmental organisations and academic institutions. During my time at the IOM, I worked with many inspiring nutrition and public health luminaries, including Jeff Koplan, Michael McGinnis, ShirikiKumanyika and Mary Story.
Then I spent a few years at Save the Children in DC as a nutrition and physical activity advisor for a healthy lifestyles afterschool programme, reaching children living in poor rural regions of the US. During this period, I collaborated with colleagues at Tufts University to adapt and test the Shape Up Somerville community-based intervention urban model to prevent unhealthy weight gain among rural children. My work at Save the Children was insightful, but I sometimes felt like a fresh water fish swimming in the salty ocean against the tide! The organisation’s signature programmes are overwhelmingly focused on addressing child undernutrition and child survival. These are exceedingly important programmes. But they did not meaningfully address the double burden of malnutrition internationally.
I was among the staff who questioned why this leading international NGO had no clear internal guidelines for accepting food and beverage company or corporate foundation sponsorship funds to support their programmes benefiting children. This was despite the fact that the agency had clear, board-approved guidelines for not accepting funds from certain industry sectors (such as weapons, infant formula and tobacco companies) that undermine children’s health and well-being. I believe that the marketing of unhealthy food and drink to children worldwide violates their human right to a nutritious and healthy diet and creates an unhealthy eating environment. These concerns remained unheeded. So in 2010, I left DC and landed in Australia to embark on a PhD in population health to pursue research interests stimulated by my professional work in DC.
I hope that my future contributions can help to shape the next generation of nutrition policy entrepreneurs who are equipped with the skills to address the range of public health nutrition challenges. Here is my vision. They will be comfortable working in trans-disciplinary teams. They will be able to adapt to many political and cultural contexts. They will be versatile to work in research, advocacy or practice settings. Finally, they will be confident in using the multi-media platforms to champion sustainable food systems and to normalise healthy eating and active living environments.