Lois Englberger died in October 2011. Her profile will remain posted here
Here is my story! I was raised on a small farm in Northwest Missouri, and 4-H activities were an important part of my childhood. I was fascinated by the International Farm Youth Exchange (IFYE) program, which involved an experience living with families in overseas countries. After I finished my bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri at Columbia, I became an IFYE delegate myself, and was thrilled to go to India, where I lived for six months with host families in rural areas of Punjab, Kerala and Goa.
After my India experience in 1970-71, I was fortunate to join the International Nutrition programme at Cornell University with Michael Latham as my supervisor. I carried out a Master’s research project in Bogota, Colombia. After completing my data collection, I took a ‘quick’ trip to the Yemen Arab Republic. I had met an interesting German agriculturist in India, and he invited me to visit him. How exciting to travel to Sana’a, and extend my research there…and we also got married! Later I worked in Yemen with the International Voluntary Services and the Catholic Relief Services in health clinics.
In 1980 we moved to the Kingdom of Tonga, where I assisted the government’s National Food and Nutrition Committee, organizing activities, including a national weight loss competition. I had the privilege to work with the King of Tonga, who was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest monarch. He achieved an amazing weight loss (over 150 pounds) and encouraged a healthy diet and physical activity for his people. In 1997, we moved to Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), where I worked as a United Nations Volunteer with UNICEF and the FSM Government.
At that time the problem of vitamin A deficiency in children had emerged. We sought to alleviate this problem with locally grown green leafy vegetables and other internationally-advised foods. However, many Micronesians explained that they considered greens as food for the pigs and said that greens had never been an important food for them in the past. Vitamin A deficiency had not been a problem in the past but had emerged after a shift to eating rice and other imported processed foods. Evidently something in the traditional diet had previously protected people against vitamin A deficiency.
Micronesians started describing an interesting yellow/orange-fleshed banana variety called karat, which had been a traditional infant food in the past. I sent karat for analysis (not a simple task, as the laboratories are far away from Micronesia, with no direct flights or other transport). The results were truly amazing! Karat banana is very rich in beta-carotene, other carotenoids and other nutrients, including riboflavin. We promoted karat, and were delighted as it started to appear in the local markets, although it had not been sold previously.
This work led me to carry out a PhD at the University of Queensland, a multiple methodology ethnographic study, assessing the natural food sources of vitamin A in FSM. My work led to the identification of many yellow-fleshed carotenoid-rich banana, giant swamp taro, pandanus and breadfruit varieties. These can be promoted to also alleviate diabetes, heart disease and cancer, which have become problems of epidemic proportion in Micronesia. My thesis received a Dean’s Commendation.
Then I returned to Micronesia and worked with my local colleagues, planning ways to promote local food and to reverse the trend towards imported processed foods. In 2004, we formed a non-governmental organisation, the Island Food Community of Pohnpei (see www.islandfood.org).
How exciting it has been to see this organization grow! In 2005, we joined the global health project led by the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) at McGill University, Canada, and warmly thank Professor Harriet Kuhnlein and the CINE team. We documented the traditional food system in a target community and promoted local foods for health, using the slogan ‘Let’s go local’, and stressed the CHEEF benefits of local foods: culture, health, environment, economy and food security.
A major challenge is that local food has been associated with poverty, as consuming local food may be perceived as having no money to buy rice or other marketed foods. The paucity of research on local foods led to incorrect perceptions. For example, many people (including expatriates) considered taro as ‘just starch’. This is far from the truth: giant swamp taro is rich in fibre, iron, calcium, zinc, and provitamin A carotenoids. Local foods are also less convenient and more expensive than imported processed foods.
What challenges we face, but how exciting that our target community achieved significant dietary improvement and an improved attitude to local foods. We also see a growing interest by Micronesians in the nutrient content and scientific properties of their own foods. So let’s go – and stay – local!