The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN), Italy, sponsors an annual research grant for young PhD and post-doc researchers from around the world to advance innovative projects on food sustainability. The 2017 BCFN Young Earth Solutions, BCFN YES!, was awarded to Joana Abou-Rizk and Theresa Jeremias for their project “Maternal and Child Nutrition among Refugees and Host Communities in Greater Beirut, Lebanon: A Focus on Anemia.” Abou-Rizk, a PhD Candidate at the University of Hohenheim, Germany, explains her project and its impact on improving food and nutrition security in Lebanon to Food Tank.
Globally, anemia is a major health concern. According to the Global Nutrition Report 2017, more than one-third of all women of reproductive age suffer from anemia worldwide; nearly half of all children worldwide also have anemia. The United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF, recognizes anemia as a health concern in its 2018 Mid-Year Syria Crisis Humanitarian Results Report.
Anemia is related to young infant feeding and care practices, Abou-Rizk explains, “in 2016, only 42 percent of Syrian children 6-8 months had received complimentary food. The children who had received [complimentary] foods had poor dietary diversity with insufficient consumption of vitamin A-rich fruits, vegetables, protein-rich food, and fish, in return increasing their risk to anemia and vitamin A deficiency.” A mother’s health and nutrition status is the main determinant of her child’s health—one of the most effective ways to support a young child’s health is to make sure the mother is healthy during her pregnancy.
Lebanon currently hosts more than 1.5 million refugees from Syria. With Lebanon’s already weak health infrastructure, the flow of refugees adds further stress to poor Lebanese communities around Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, where many refugees settle. Free health care is available for vulnerable individuals—however, research indicates that both refugee and host communities “are more prone to being food and nutritionally insecure… the food and nutrition security of women of reproductive age and children under five is at increased risk of deterioration,” Abou-Rizk tells Food Tank.
While conducting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition, Abou-Rizk observed the Syrian humanitarian crisis expel refugees, mostly women and children, into her native Lebanon. “With a fragile political, social and economic situation, the nutritional status of vulnerable groups, such as children under five and women of reproductive age, is increasingly compromised by the protracted crisis,” she tells Food Tank. “Recent data showed that the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are food insecure consuming a more and more monotonous diet.”
The project has two objectives, explains Abou-Rizk. “We are not only interested in understanding the determinants of anemia among those vulnerable groups, but also in finding and testing culturally appropriate, food-based solutions for its prevention.” After an initial cross-sectional study to assess the prevalence of anemia among children (0-59 months) and their mothers (15-49 years) in Syrian refugee and Lebanese host communities, “phase II aims to assess the effectiveness of nutrition education and counseling intervention to improve dietary intake of foods rich in hematinic nutrients.” Abou-Rizk tells Food Tank how the first 1,000 days from pregnancy “to a child’s second birthday have been recognized as a window of opportunity to prevent maternal and child malnutrition.” And therefore the intervention intends to address the issue before it becomes a problem.
The research project is a collaboration between the University of Hohenheim and the American University of Beirut with support from BCFN YES! 2017, DAAD, and the Fiat Panis Foundation. Theresa Jeremias, Coordinator for Food and Nutrition Security for CARE Germany, is co-researcher and also a nutritionist working to improve meal rations provided to refugees.