Interview with Dr. Anna Herforth and Dr. Jennifer (Jennie) Coates
Dr. Anna Herforth and Dr. Jennifer (Jennie) Coates lead the IANDA Project (Indicators of Affordability of Nutritious Diets in Africa), which seeks to shift the way food prices are reported and interpreted so that they reflect affordability of nutritious diets. The project is working in Ghana and Tanzania, funded by an IMMANA grant from the UK government (DFID). As a result of this project, improved food price monitoring in these countries can be used to inform program and policy actions to improve access to nutritious food. We encourage you to learn more about their project at ianda.nutrition.tufts.edu.
1. How did you become interested in the topics you’re researching?
Our project involves agriculture, food systems, and healthy diets. I became interested in those topics through studying and travel. In my undergraduate degree, I started off studying plant breeding at Cornell and quickly transitioned into a more anthropological track of ethnobotany and how people use plants, and why they grow certain varieties. I was fortunate to have the chance to study that in several countries in Latin America. I had a bit of a gap after college where I didn’t know where I was headed. I had a job in a lab which was not satisfying to me, so I started browsing course catalogues and decided I wanted to study nutrition at Tufts. Doing my master’s at Tufts opened many opportunities for me to work in food policy, including travel opportunities in South Asia. Then I completed a PhD at Cornell, where I focused on agriculture and nutrition and did research in Africa. From there, I worked at several organisations focusing on the linkages between agriculture and nutrition, including the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and SPRING Project, which is part of USAID’s Feed the Future initiative.
I pursued my undergraduate degree at Tufts and was interested in international relations early on. I gradually began to realise that a lot of the material focused more on France, Russia, and parts of the world that ultimately didn’t hold much appeal for me. So, I started taking courses that focused on developing countries and realised that this was the direction I wanted to take. I studied abroad in Kenya in my junior year through a program that focused on food security and nutrition. Yet, it wasn’t until my senior year after I took an amazing course on the political economy of world hunger that everything came together. I found that Tufts had a school of nutrition science and policy, which appealed to me because it wasn’t just people working in labs, but also in policy. So, after my undergrad, I worked at an organisation here in Boston called John Snow Incorporated, which is a worldwide public health organisation. This was the most fantastic stepping stone for me because I travelled across the world right out of school. Then, I went back to school at Tufts and pursued my master’s and PhD.
2. Tell us about The Indicators of Affordability of Nutritious Diets in Africa (IANDA) and how you were inspired to launch this project.
In the IANDA project, we are working in two countries, Ghana and Tanzania, but the concept is applicable globally. It will change the way food prices are interpreted and used for information. In the food price crisis we heard about prices going up, but what does it mean when you hear the term ‘food prices?’ Sometimes it’s staple grains, and sometimes it is a basket of food that reflects what people spend the most money on. That doesn’t necessarily reflect what people need to eat or the access to that food. So, what the IANDA project aims to do is align the information regarding food prices with what people need for nutritious diets. We are working with the systems already in-country, such as the ministries of agriculture, which already collect food prices throughout the country. In Ghana, they collect price information on 43 different foods, but there are a few missing that are needed to reflect a complete, nutritious diet. We’ll then be able to use the regularly-collected food price data in a new way to demonstrate whether a nutritious diet is affordable, across seasons and geographies.
3. Do you think total food security is feasible in the areas which you are working?
Regarding achieving food security as defined as people having access to affordable healthy diets, it is going to take some time, but it is not impossible. This is not only in our interest, but in that of producers, suppliers, consumers, and policymakers. People coming from this at different angles and working together will maximise the progress of this movement. I am hopeful that once we’ve made the problem more visible, start tracking it and managing it, there will start to be the creation of a policy that will implement this measurement.
I believe that what gets measured gets managed. When we had workshops with the Ministries of Agriculture, they were enthusiastic about the potential of the small shift in measurement we were proposing, and some participants mentioned that they simply hadn’t thought of it before. It is a shift in thinking that is necessary – toward “food” meaning, by default, nutritious food. So, once the food is measured in a way that reflects what people need, the measurement itself can start to shift perceptions of what is needed for food security. And that is access to healthy diets.
4. What would you say is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Within our project, the major difficulty is the lack of timely access to data. Countries often don’t have the capacity and infrastructure to provide complete, current data, such as through an online portal. We have had to physically go to ministry officials and ask for files from certain years. In some cases, one individual may be in charge of responding to requests for data, and the process can be slow. Lack of capacity to share updated data could undermine the utility of the data if policymakers can’t access it promptly.
Parallel projects are happening in Tanzania that have been encouraging more efficient ways of collecting and storing information, such as using tablets. Unfortunately, though, we won’t be able to take advantage of the resulting easier access to data, because they are occurring at the same time as our project. There is a global movement toward recognising the need for open data which is very important.
5. How do you remain optimistic that your work will affect positive change?
If you pause and focus on specific situations regarding extreme food insecurity, the development of a country can feel very intractable at times, which can become overwhelming. But, I have now been in this line of work long enough that I have seen positive change, even if it is on a micro level. To stay positive, you need to take the bigger picture and step back, realising that we keep advocating for change through numerous platforms.
We know change is possible and we have a vision of change for the future. It’s the journey that is important for satisfaction, and when you start to see results, it pushes you to keep going.
6. What goal would you like to reach in your career?
The very thing we’ve been talking about is one of the big markers for me. When we have defined useful indicators that will be implemented and become the norm, will be an amazing feeling of accomplishment that was created by an entire movement of people through a large working process.
During my graduate studies when I looked at the UN Flagship Reports regarding food security and nutrition, they didn’t include the information I wanted to see – some very basic information on nutrition, including diet quality, and access to nutritious foods. I hope to open those reports in a few years from now and see globally-compiled data on those missing pieces. Filling these basic information gaps will be fulfilling.
 Innovative Methods and Metrics for Agriculture and Nutrition Actions