Food for Thought

Elizabeth is a junior in the Honors Program of Medical Education (HPME) at Northwestern University. She is studying Economics and Global Health in the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences. Outside of class, Elizabeth works on the Partnerships Team at GlobeMed, a Chicago based nonprofit that aims to strengthen the movement for global health equity by empowering students and communities to work together to improve the health of people living in poverty around the world. She also works with Heartland Alliance’s Refugee Health Programs and practices gymnastics with the NU Club Gymnastics team. Elizabeth will travel to six countries across the world this summer to pursue her project entitled, “Tackling Childhood Malnutrition: A global study of scaling up grassroots approaches to catalyze world progress.” She aims to study how high impact grassroots nutrition programs can be scaled up to catalyze progress across wider populations. Itinerary: Guatemala — June 17th, 2014 Peru — June 30th, 2014 Austria — July 28th, 2014 Uganda — August 1st, 2014 Rwanda — August 14th, 2014 Nepal — August 21st, 2014 Cambodia — September 6th, 2014 Elizabeth is traveling on the Circumnavigators Travel-Study Grant, jointly funded by Northwestern University, the Circumnavigators Club – Chicago Chapter, and Weinberg Colleges of Arts and Sciences. This blog is provided by the Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Research.

Beautiful Chaos

Since it is impossible to capture the awe inspiring experience of Teej Festival at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal last Thursday in just one picture or blog post, I created a photo story to document one of my most amazing memories of the summer!

I hope that my photos capture at least a small piece of the energy, beauty, and spirit of the day. Check them out, here!


Hello again!!

Hello, everyone!!

I have safely arrived in Nepal, to begin the last continent of my journey. I sincerely apologize for the lack of blog posts over the last few weeks. Between a broken laptop and virtually nonexistent internet access in rural Uganda, it was impossible to stay caught up.

Luckily, I have plenty of posts waiting to be formatted and uploaded that document my amazing time in Eastern Africa. With a few emails to the Northwestern IT desk, I think I have figured out a way to post to my blog, complete with pictures, in spite of my broken laptop. It will take a little longer than usual to format and transfer photos, but I will work on uploading my backlogged posts over the next week.

More soon!

Farming toward health


While in Rwanda, I had the chance to visit two organizations that are using agricultural programs to improve health and livelihood around the country.

The first organization One Acre Fund, known by it’s local name Tubura in Rwanda, is located in western Rwanda, in the beautiful district of Kibuye that lies on Lake Kivu. They were founded in 2006 and have grown extremely rapidly at their many project sites throughout East Africa. Their Rwanda program currently works with slightly over 70,000 small holder farmers.

One Acre Funs offers each farmer loans of seeds, fertilizer, and farm inputs, in addition to training on agricultural techniques and market facilitation. All of these components work together to help farmers increase yields and profits, therefore allowing them to better support their families. The farmers have a year to pay back their loans, using money from the surplus profits in the first year. In the past year, 99% of farmers in Tubura’s programs have repaid their loans within the allotted time frame. On average, each farmer sees an increase of over $100 USD in profits in the first year.

Though One Acre does not directly track health indicators of the families in their programs yet, they are moving into the health space over the next few years. Given the increased amount of home grown food and the water filters distributed by Tubura, it will be interesting to see the health impact of an organization with such a wide reach.

The Land of a Thousand Hills

 This is about our past and our future;

Our nightmares and our dreams;

Our fear and our hope;

Which is why we begin where we end…

With the country we love.

After a long flight from Brussels last week, I landed safely in Kigali, Rwanda, ready to begin exploring the next continent on my journey. I was greeted by a friend named Beth Larsen who has been living and working in Kigali for the past year. Given that I also go by Beth, we have had a lot of fun confusing people over the last week.


I spent the first four days in the country exploring the capital with Beth. Kigali is so clean and organized, a shocking difference from Kampala,  the nearby capital of Uganda. For example, the easiest and cheapest way to travel around the city is to hop on the back of a motorcycle, called a moto. In Uganda, these motorcycles often packed three or four passengers onto the small seat behind the driver, never had helmets to give to passengers, and were completely unregulated. In Rwanda, it is an entirely different story. Motos are allowed to carry one passenger, they must carry helmets for themselves and the passengers, and they are required to wear a numbered vest to help regulate the system. This is just one example of the differences, but there are many. All of the main roads are nicely paved, street vendors are illegal, so the streets are clean and orderly, and police officers are stationed every few hundred meters in the main parts of town.

One day, I was able to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Gisozi. It is a beautiful museum, built to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost during the 1994 genocide. The memorial opened in April 2004, which marked the tenth anniversary of the genocide. It was designed by the Aegis Trust, an organization that works to prevent genocide around the world.

The memorial is divided into three main exhibitions  inside – history and information about the genocide, an exhibit about genocidal violence that has occurred around the world, and a memorial dedicated to the children killed during the genocide. There are also elaborate gardens surrounding the building, lining the mass graves of more than 250,000 victims. Visiting the memorial was a horrifying reminder to me about the recent history of this country, and I left even more amazed about the resilience of the people and the reconstruction that has gone on since.


 The entrance to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Gisozi. 

Flowers line the mass graves of more than 250,000 individuals that died during the 1994 genocide. 

A New Way Forward

Though they lie thousands of miles apart, the countries of Guatemala and Peru continue to fight against the same seemingly unconquerable struggle: childhood malnutrition.

In both countries, nationwide data masks the severity of the problem. In Guatemala, childhood stunting affects around 50% of children under five, yet the prevalence soars to 70-80% in many indigenous communities. The disparities in Peru are equally as stark. In fact, the country is often overlooked by agencies providing nutritional support as the overall prevalence of childhood malnutrition is only about 15%, even though indigenous communities continue to see rates of 40, 50, even 60%.

As you can see, the problem of childhood stunting in Latin America is extremely prevalent, but it is not widespread. It is concentrated in impoverished indigenous populations that have faced years of racism, marginalization, and abuse. How can we begin to solve the nutrition crisis that was created by decades of political, economic, and social oppression?

The answer is not easy or immediately obvious. As you can quickly see from examining the data on stunting over the last few decades, the world has struggled to make significant progress despite the best efforts of governments and bilateral aid organizations. For example, malnutrition rates in rural Peru fell 0.3% in the ten years from 1996 to 2005. Even though change seems to be accelerating in the majority of countries,  it is not fast enough, nor consistent in its reach. In fact, as of 2010, fifteen countries now have a childhood malnutrition prevalence that is higher than it was in the 1990s.

Luckily, hidden in the shadows cast by governments and foreign aid, small grassroots organizations have been hard at work achieving remarkable success at improving the nutritional health of their communities’ children. For the past month, I have had the remarkable privilege and honor to investigate some of these programs first hand. Though their strategies are incredibly diverse, their passion for nutrition is identical.

For example, Wuqu’ Kawoq runs a patient centered nutrition program completely in the indigenous language of Kaqchikel, the language of many Mayan Guatemalans. In one community named Paya, the mothers of the children enrolled run the program themselves, taking all of the height and weight measurements to be recorded in the system. In another one of their communities, the director of the nutrition program was unable to find additional children to be admitted, at they were all growing adequately. This is what success looks like.

Close by in the highlands around Panajachel, Mayan Families runs an innovative and unique nutrition preschool program. Mothers are able to drop off their children for a daily program of Spanish lessons, supervised playtime, and a healthy breakfast and lunch. Looking at the data, many kids aged three to five years have made substantial growth gains, a big step toward overcoming the infantile malnutrition that many suffered. This is what success looks like.

An entire hemisphere away in the high altitude mountains of Peru, a young organization called Sacred Valley Health is training women to become health promoters in their communities, providing basic primary care and education about nutrition, sanitation, and disease prevention. They have more than doubled the number of health promoters in the last two years, allowing for important lessons about nutrition to be disseminated to more and more communities. This is what success looks like.

Toward the middle of the country, Future Generations is proving that a nationally sponsored health program called Community Health Administration Associations (CLAS) can be reformed to provide citizens with first class primary care. By developing accessible and accurate materials to train nurses to train community health facilitators, Future Generations has increased the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in Huancayo from 71.8% to 95.3% and has decreased the rate of malnutrition in children under two by almost 7% in just one year. This is what success looks like.

And last, but certainly not least, Feed the World is re-imagining agriculture in Northern Peru, one of the world’s most arid areas. By distributing loans of seeds and agricultural tools to farmers, along with providing extensive education on dry farming techniques, Feed the World equips farmers with the tools necessary to cultivate nutritious crops to feed their families even working within difficult circumstances. After the first year of the program, the regional and local government, along with the local university have taken over 74% of the project’s costs, a substantial investment in a previously ignored problem. This is what success looks like.

As I hope is clear by the examples above, the power and impact of small community based organizations to affect change cannot be underestimated. If we wish to make a profound difference in the prevalence of malnutrition around the world, we must not only wholeheartedly embrace the lessons on how to achieve large scale impact with a small scale, community approach, but we must continue to invest in these grassroots organizations and their fearless leaders who are working day in and day out to create a way forward.

If you are interested in learning more or inspired to support one of the causes above, you can access their websites at the embedded links throughout this post. 

A quick stop in Europe!

So sorry for the delay! The WordPress blogging platform has been exceptionally slow // impossible to load recently.

I am now on a flight from Brussels to Kigali, Rwanda to begin the next continent of my project! I will be spending about two weeks in Rwanda, followed by a week and a half in Uganda. I will be able to observe childhood malnutrition programs at three organizations – Gardens for Health, One Acre Fund, and Kigezi Healthcare Foundation.

Austria was a wonderful experience, and a perfect chance to rest and recover (and overcome jetlag!) before beginning my study in Africa! When I was in high school, my family hosted a student from Austria named Viktoria in my home for six months. Now, Viki is living and studying in Vienna, so I was lucky enough to have my own personal tour guide for the few days that I was there!

She took me all around the city, and I saw so many wonderful things. We started by walking around the city center, looking at the Cathedral, the horse drawn buggies, the famous shopping streets, and of course, lots of stops for gelato! She took me to explore her university, Vienna University of Economics and Business, which has a brand new campus that just opened last year. It was so beautiful! We visited two castles, as well.

After finishing in Vienna, we took the train to Upper Austria so that I could meet her family! I got to meet her mom, dad, and younger sister, which was lots of fun!  I didn’t know any German at the start, but now I can proudly say a handful of words and phrases. J On my last day, we took the train Salzburg to explore Mozart’s birthplace! It is such a gorgeous, quaint little town situated on a river at the base of the mountains. We met up with some of Viki’s friends from the university, and they showed us around their hometown!

I’m so grateful for my short European adventure, and I’m beyond excited to begin working in Africa! (No worries, I am visiting East Africa, far away from the Ebola outbreak!) I will try to post as much as possible, but the internet can be a bit difficult in Africa. Hope everyone is having a great summer back home! I can’t believe that it is already August!

Feed the World

How is this possible, I thought to myself, looking out across lush papaya fields growing from what appeared to be an expansive desert. We were in Nueva Esperanza, a poverty stricken desert town along the coast of Northern Peru, visiting a family that participates in Feed the World’s programming.

Feed the World’s mission is to “create self-reliance in all facets of life.” Feed the World works through extensive education programs, all centered around their own small-scale agricultural model. Though the land here is dry, it can produce an abundance of vegetables, grains, and fruit with proper dry farming technique. The team of educators works individually with every family to teach them how to use their own land to produce a plethora of nutritious food. They’ve been working alongside the government and universities in Peru to continue increasing the sustainability and impact of their programs.

Feed the World helps families to break away from the monocropping agriculture standard in the area, and assists them in planting new vegetable gardens, raising small livestock to eat, and growing field crops for supplemental income. They also engage the families in lessons about nutrition and hygiene, showing them new ways to use the crops that they are growing.

So far, their projects have been a huge success. In just over one year, the rates of childhood malnutrition have been cut in half, from around 80% to less than 40%. Families are earning more money, eating healthier foods, and practicing healthy and hygienic home habits. It’s been fascinating to observe how a program largely focused on agriculture and livestock is having a profound impact on health in the region.

Snapshots of Machu Picchu!

This weekend I was able to visit Machu Picchu! I’ve been wanting to visit since I first learned about it in high school, and it was a dream come true. Machu Picchu is as awe inspiring and fascinating as everyone says it is. Here are a few pictures that I took of the day!

The Tragedy I Never Knew

The remnants of Yungay, as viewed from the cemetery hill overlooking the city. Huascaran, the tallest mountain in Peru, looms in the background.

The silence was defeaning. As I walked under the enormous arches declaring, “El Campo Sagrado | The Sacred Ground,” the vast emptiness of the land in front of me was striking. The tallest peak of Peru, the snow capped Huascaran, loomed far above. It’s foreboding presence reminded me of the power of the earth, and all I could think of was the twenty thousand bodies buried intact under my feet, untouched from their last moments of life. The town was called Yungay, now known as la ciudad desaparecida, the disappeared city.

On Sunday, May 31st, 1970 around 3:00 PM, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit the region of Ancash. The earthquake alone caused tens of thousands of deaths around the country.

Two minutes after the earthquake ended, when the worst seemed to be over, 80 million cubic meters of rock, glacier, and snow disassociated from the northern peak of Huascaran. The avalanche roared toward the city of Yungay at a speed of over 300 kilometers per hour. The entire city – including twenty thousand men, women, and children – was buried alive in under three minutes.

The only survivors that were in Yungay at the time of the avalance were ninety two individuals that had been visiting the cemetary on a hill above the city. The avalanche buried the town under 7 meters of rubble, but only reached the second story of the cemetary. Those at the top watched the tragedy unfold from beneath the arms of a large Christ statue overlooking Yungay.

Additionally, around 200 children from the city were watching a free circus show in a neighboring town, which was untouched by the avalanche. Though these children escaped unscathed, the vast majority were left as orphans. Our guide’s father was one of these children.

Today, the city remains a sacred ground. The Peruvian government forbade any excavation of the bodies, but declared it a national cemetary. Tiny edges of twisted buses and iron gates can be seen poking up from beneath the meters of the original dirt and rock that covered the city over 40 years ago. There are four palm trees that remain standing after the disaster – protected by a church that slowed the stampede of earth – that can be seen today. Flowers have been planted in the shape of the cross where that Plaza de Armas used to be.

Though the profound loss of Yungay was palpable, the resiliance of the people was apparent. Neighboring the remnants of the destroyed city lies Yungay La Hermosa, or Yungay the Beautiful, which is once again a bustling mountain town.

The desolance of the site was a somber reminder of the power of mother nature. With climate change melting glaciers and changing weather patterns, I couldn’t help to fear that destructive events like these will become increasingly common.

The view from the top of the cemetery, overlooking the site and Huascaran Mountain.

The Yungay cemetery, where ninety two people survived the avalanche in 1970.

The statue of Christ that the sole survivors of the avalanche stood under. The statue was  undamaged by the disaster.  

Rows of graves line the terraces of the Yungay cemetery. 

Explorations in Peru

My next research site is in Cusco. Cusco is an easy hour long flight east of Lima, but I decided to try something a little more adventurous. I signed up for a four day long bus ride from Lima to Cusco that included many stops on the way. I thought it would be a good way to see more of the country, and that turned out to be true!

From the beaches outside Lima to the coastline of Paracas, from the sand dunes of Huacachina to the vineyards of Pisco, the journey is best described through pictures! It was a fun four days of experiencing what the vast lands of Peru have to offer, but I am glad to finally be off the bus onto solid ground for the next week! I’ll be working in a town called Ollantaytambo with an organization called Sacred Valley Health. More to come!

Enjoying the vast sand dunes in Huacachina, Peru.

Jumping for joy in Huacachina, Peru.

Celebrating the fourth of July with a beautiful desert sunset. Who needs fireworks when the sky is on fire??