by Bronson Teichert
Utah State University seniors have many opportunities to gain professional experience that prepares them for the careers that will follow graduation. For two USU dietetics students anxious to share important knowledge about food, launching a nonprofit organization in a country like India seemed like a dream they might realize 10 years into the future.
“Being a dietetics student at USU, I learned a lot about malnutrition and global health challenges, especially related to nutrition,” said Marisa Christensen, who graduated in spring 2018. “I’ve heard about these situations and I’ve always had the desire to help and serve.”
The phrase, “Knowledge is power” motivated Marisa and classmate Taylor Hale, who also graduated in spring 2018, to follow their dream of teaching nutrition. Marisa said USU classes like community nutrition by Mateja Savoi Roskos, medical nutrition therapy by Rebecca Charlton, and advanced nutrition by Ron Munger helped inspire the big idea.
“The idea was to take a group of people and teach nutrition education,” Marisa said. “It wasn’t even a thought of becoming a nonprofit, at first. Once we got into researching more details, we realized, ‘Why not make it sustainable? Why not make it a nonprofit?’”
Their organization, Nutrition Education Ending Malnutrition (NEEM), was started with personal investments and volunteer fees. Marisa said now the organization is on track for government grants and public donations.
More knowledge came to the project with Marisa’s husband, Tanner, who graduated from USU in public health and industrial hygiene. Even with their education and degrees, Hale said the project was still overwhelming.
“We spent countless hours researching India, the culture, everything we thought we would need to know, as well as the nutrition education we wanted to teach,” Taylor said.
The USU graduates left the United States at the beginning of July and worked until the end of August with people in areas close to the city of Dharamshala, in the northern region of India bordering the Himalayas. Once they arrived in India, the team understood just how badly nutrition education was needed and how much the people there welcomed the information.
“We chose to start in India because malnutrition rates are high and the statistics are hard to ignore,” Marisa said. “Several articles suggest that despite India's increase in GDP, it is still one of the highest ranking countries in the world for the number of children suffering from malnutrition. Studies show that it has more than one-third of the world’s malnourished children.”
NEEM’s website points out that malnutrition causes 45 percent of deaths in children under age 5. And the effects of malnutrition don’t end in adulthood and often include chronic health problems and weakened immune systems that interfere with people being able to work and provide for themselves and their families. The organization starts with educating women and girls and with a focus on local food and agriculture systems that impact food choices and availability.
One family with the right education can pass that knowledge down to future generations and, Marisa believes, that can change the future of a community and developing country.
“They can tell their friends and they can tell their kids,” Marisa said. “It’s just so powerful, and knowledge really is everything when it comes to being sustainable and providing for yourself.”
While educating people about diet and proper sanitation through entire populations is the goal, it is seeing improvements in the lives of individuals that drives Marisa, Tanner, and Taylor’s passion. Working with organizations in India like The Navjeevan Foundation and the Surya Uday Charitable Trust, the dietitians and volunteers met a single mother with three mentally and physically disabled children. This family helped Marisa and Tanner realize that what they were doing could change lives in this struggling family.
“She has a very sad story of her being abused by her alcoholic husband, being left, and having neighbors who have threatened to hurt her because they have to deal with the kids and her family,” Marisa said. “It’s just so amazing how she thrives and loves her kids and is able to take care of them as a single parent, as someone who has kids that need her time consistently.”
The experiences that especially impacted Taylor were the lactation education opportunities.
“When I got to teach about things that helped women who were expecting or having problems or had questions with lactation, that was kind of my highlight, just because that’s an area that I love assisting and supporting women in,” she said.
Education that stays in a community and is passed down cannot be learned all at once, Tanner said. The trio is growing its team of dietitians who are contributing part-time to create nutrition curriculum and prepare to lead future trips.
“Our goal from this first trip to India was to get a baseline understanding of what knowledge people had,” Tanner said. “Then to progress as we go back each year and to monitor to see how they were from our first time until two, three trips down the road. If we don’t monitor that or see where they were before, then we would never know how to help.”
Taylor said classes like community nutrition, the coordinated dietetics program, and internships prepared her and Marisa for the complicated tasks they undertook.
“I think that really prepared us to take this on as our own and to feel confident that we could pull it off,” Hale said. “Marisa and I were partners in a lot of our projects in the dietetics program. That gave us confidence going forward.”
Marisa will work with NEEM full-time and her husband Tanner will contribute part-time, while working at his current job. Taylor will also be contributing part-time to the nonprofit while working as a dietitian at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. NEEM will be expanding with a second project in Indonesia this year.