By Bronson Teichert | November 17, 2021
Nutrition, Dietetics, & Food Sciences 

From Graduation to Rural India – A Dietitian’s Dream

By Bronson Teichert | November 17, 2021

USU Eastern students

Utah State University seniors have opportunities to gain professional experience before graduation 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 the summer after graduation, seemed like a dream they might realize ten years into the future. 

“Being a dietetics student at the University I learned a lot about malnutrition
and global health challenges especially related to nutrition,” said Marisa
Christensen, who graduated 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 her 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 with 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 more researched 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 was added to the project with Marisa’s husband Tanner,
who graduated from USU in public health and industrial hygiene. Even with
the education and degrees, Hale said the project was still overwhelming.

“We spent many hours researching India, the culture, everything we would
need to know, as well as the education we wanted to teach,” Taylor said.
The USU graduates left the United States at the beginning of August and
worked 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 how badly nutrition education was needed and how much people
there welcomed the information.

We chose to start in India because malnutrition rates are high and 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 worlds 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 organizations starts with education 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 for yourself and provide for yourself.”

While educating people about diet and proper sanitation through entire
populations is the goal, seeing improvements in the lives of individuals
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 four 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 time consistently.”
The experiences that impacted Taylor were the lactation education
“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.”

Education that stays in a community and is passed down cannot be learned
all at once, Tanner said. The trio is growing its team 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 may never know.”

Taylor said classes like community nutrition, the coordinated dietetics
program, and other 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 feeling
confident that we could pull it off,” Taylor said. “Marisa and I were partners
in a lot of our projects in the dietetics program. That gave us the confidence
going forward.”

Marisa will be working with NEEM full-time and her husband Tanner will be
contributing part-time, while working at his current job. Taylor Hale will also
be contributing part-time to the non-profit while working as a dietitian at
Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. NEEM will be expanding with a
second project to Indonesia next year.


Bronson Teichert