AMES, Iowa--Most Americans celebrate the winter holidays with feasting, far removed from the faces of poverty and hunger.
Iowa State agronomy sophomore Rachael Cox likewise will find abundant food at her family table; however, she also will bring to the feast memories of life in far off Uganda and Kenya, where she served as an intern in efforts to combat hunger.
Cox recently received the John Chrystal Intern Award during the 2006 World Food Prize International Symposium in Des Moines for her work in Kenya as well as reports about the work. She credits 4-H, a program of Iowa State University Extension, for helping to increase her communication skills in making reports, posters and presentations.
Cox first met poverty and hunger in the faces of those she served when her Cerro Gordo County 4-H club, the River City Clovers, volunteered in a community soup kitchen. That experience stuck with her, she said, and evolved into a greater interest in poverty and hunger in the world.
Her interest led her to join Students Helping to Eliminate Famine (SHEF) while attending Ames High School, through which she learned of the World Food Prize Youth Institute. The institute sends interns abroad to help bring food security to impoverished areas.
Cox served an eight-week internship during summer 2005 at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya, where she assisted in a study to improve cabbage and kale crops through biocontrol of insect pests. ICIPE’s mission is to help alleviate poverty, ensure food security and improve the overall health status of people in the tropics.
Green leafy vegetables play a vital role in food security in East Africa. Greens are eaten daily in salads or as cooked side dishes. They also provide a cash-generating crop for many farmers. The diamondback moth, however, heavily infests such crops and has developed resistance to commercial pesticides. Cox assisted with research at the Nairobi center in efforts to find natural parasitoids to control the moth.
“When I learned I would be working with insects, I wasn’t exactly thrilled; I have not always been one to live in harmony with the six-legged creatures,” she said. “Nonetheless I was willing to learn.”
During her eight weeks in Kenya, Cox not only studied insects but experienced many African meals. The food, she said, was an adjustment for her, “but once I got used to it I really liked it. I found that it was best to simply eat what you are given, without evaluating what it may be or from where it came.”
She liked the food so much that she prepared a Kenyan meal for her family when she returned home. American families usually roast turkey, ham, or beef for celebration meals, but Cox said the Kenyan equivalent is a goat roast. Even though she couldn’t roast a whole goat in her backyard, she improvised, preparing goat stew with side dishes of ugali and sukuma wiki. Ugali is white maize flour cooked in water (like cornmeal) and sukuma wiki is kale flavored with other ingredients the cook has on hand.
Cox also lived part-time with a Kenyan family, sharing in their daily life and celebrations. However, she spent most of her Saturdays at an orphanage in Nairobi, home to more than 100 children. She worked in the nursery helping to care for as many as 15 babies, feeding them mashed vegetables and formula.
She said, “I expected to come home from Kenya with answers, but instead I came home with many new questions: What should I study in college? How am I able to better understand poverty and hunger? What am I going to do with my life? What does this world really need?”
She selected a major in agronomy, focusing on agroecology, but she also plans to take courses in sociology, economics, anthropology, political science and philosophy. The issues of poverty, hunger, justice, peace and the environment are complicated and go beyond facts and figures, she said.
“Iowa State’s college of agriculture has a wealth of opportunities in my interest areas. I know that if I can’t find exactly what I want, people in the college will help me find opportunities to fit my interest and goals,” she said.
One of those goals was to return to Africa in summer 2006. “I loved the people and the culture, and I felt I had so much more to learn.”
Through the college of agriculture, she returned to Africa, helping a school gardening project in Uganda for a month, then visiting friends in Kenya as well as meeting an ISU graduate student doing her research there. The Uganda gardening project helps the school offer more nutritious food than the traditional maize porridge.
Cox advises others deciding on a career to find something they are passionate about.
“If we have passion for something, it spreads out into all other areas of our life. Suddenly classes are exciting because you know that what you are learning will help you go deeper into that passion,” she said. “Most importantly, be open to passion changing. The more we learn and have life experiences, the more our passion will take us in new directions we never thought we would go.”
Like many Kenyan cooks, Cox likes to improvise, especially when it comes to adding favorite ingredients to cookie dough. She plans to share many festively embellished cookies during the holiday season; she plans to share her passion to end world hunger throughout her life.