Sao Paulo, Brazil

Tracking food security by asking the people who eat

Three questions with Anne Walleser Kepple

Anne Walleser KeppleEditor’s note: Anne Walleser Kepple (B.S. nutrition, ’81) is a food security and nutrition specialist with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) where she promotes use of the Food Insecurity Experience Scale in 140 countries as a measure of global food security. She answered our three questions from her home in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

How does the Food Insecurity Experience Scale change the way food insecurity is perceived by policy leaders (or how might it change over time)? 

For decades, hunger was associated in people´s minds with the adequacy of the food supply. Eventually this gave way to awareness of unequal access to food, which was often in abundant supply. Measurement of hunger and food insecurity traditionally used indicators of food production, poverty, nutrient deficiencies and child weight and stature.

However, the undeniable existence of hunger in wealthy, food-rich countries like the United States, and growing evidence that many food-insecure people are overweight rather than underweight, made it necessary to re-think the way hunger and food insecurity were measured. FAO´s Food Insecurity Experience Scale descended from the U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module. The questions that compose it, derived from conversations with women who said they had experienced hunger, are universal: “Due to a lack of money, have you worried about running out of food, eaten a less healthy diet, skipped meals, gone a whole day without eating?” This way of measuring hunger focuses policy makers´ attention on the lived experience of people rather than on food supply alone or malnutrition. It can help policy makers understand the diverse causes of food insecurity and its potential consequences.

What led you to this kind of global-scale work? Was there an event or turning point in your life where you decided to pursue nutritional issues as a social/public policy concern? 

As is often the case, the path was rather circuitous and serendipitous. After graduating from the U of M and doing a one-year dietetic internship in California, I was in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic where I lived in a rural village. That experience brought home to me the fact that U.S. government policies often contribute to poverty and poor nutrition in countries like the Dominican Republic. Upon my return, after working for two years in an international nutrition project in Washington, D.C., I decided to go to graduate school to study hunger and food security issues in the U.S. I felt compelled to address hunger in my country and to hold my own government accountable for its actions affecting food insecurity inside as well as outside its borders. So the Peace Corps was a turning point, learning with great minds in graduate school at Cornell University was another and the third turning point was meeting my Brazilian husband in graduate school—which ironically took me back to Latin America, in spite of my conscious choice years earlier to focus on hunger in my own country.

The history of the Food Insecurity Experience Scale paralleled mine in many ways, from its origins at Cornell University, to the U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module, to the Brazilian Food Insecurity Scale, before FAO decided to take it to the global level.  I was more of a close witness, and in many ways, even a naysayer, as I did not believe that a set of questions designed to measure hunger in the U.S. would be culturally appropriate elsewhere.  As you can see, I changed my mind. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this work? 

I would probably be engaged in research on food security in Brazil, either as a collaborating researcher on a project or as a consultant to the Brazilian Ministry of Social Development. Currently I am helping to organize a national meeting of food and nutrition security researchers in Brazil with the objective of forming a scientific association. One positive effect of more than ten years of government prioritization of ending hunger and improving food security is that there is now an impressive cadre of people at all levels who understand food insecurity and its many dimensions—researchers, policy makers, even local government and community leaders.

Bonus:

You’ve lived in Brazil for more than two decades. This summer, the Olympics will have put your adopted home country in the spotlight. What’s the biggest misconception Americans have about Brazil? 

Most Americans have a mistaken image of Brazil as a Third World country. In fact, the Brazil and the U.S. both have areas within their borders that could be characterized as Third World and others as First World—often in the same city. Most Americans are not aware that Brazil has a universal health care system, that public universities are free and that, although income inequality is still very high, it is perhaps the only country in the world where the gap between the rich and the poor has narrowed over the past ten years. Brazilian scientists, intellectuals and artists are respected around the world and play an important role in the global scenario—in my field, in particular! The policies implemented by the Brazilian government to fight hunger have served as a model promoted by FAO today.

—Becky Beyers