Doubly burdened: Addressing malnutrition and learning in Dominican Republic classrooms

Photo of school cafeteria in the Dominican Republic, courtesy of Sarah Robert.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Robert

By Sarah A. Robert

Published February 13, 2019

“Feeding students at school may address the double burden of malnutrition and, more often than not, create a double burden of teaching work.”
Sarah Robert, Associate Professor
Learning and Instruction

Collaborative, interdisciplinary work is urgently needed to confront the greatest challenges facing earth and humanity. However, working in interdisciplinary teams means learning new methodological and theoretical language and, more importantly, translating concepts and processes in conversation to advance new knowledge. I am familiar with the conundrum of working across epistemological divides to improve school food policy development (Robert & Kovalskys, 2011), so I felt well prepared for the challenge to produce knowledge about globally integrated food systems, land use change and the double burden of malnutrition in the Dominican Republic.

The double burden of malnutrition, a global phenomenon represented by the co-existence of undernourished as well as overweight and obese individuals (WHO, n.d.), is a term widely understood in medical and public health disciplines, as well as some development arenas. Though a new concept to me – I had to learn how it is defined, measured, and observed – I drew on my expertise of the double burden of work in the field of education (Robert, 2014; Robert, 2017; Robert & McEntarfer, 2014, 2016). Drawn from feminist and sociological research, the double burden of work represents women’s multiple roles and responsibilities juggling paid and unpaid work. In education, all teachers (women and men) take care of their students in ways that fall outside a (simplistic) transactional understanding of education as teaching=learning. Nations around the world feed their children at schools, though debates around the particulars of school food abound (see Robert & Weaver-Hightower, 2011). Teachers often feed their students in order to teach:  so that students may come to school and may be able to learn. Although adding to their workload, these responsibilities are overlooked and teachers are not remunerated. Feeding students at school may address the double burden of malnutrition and, more often than not, create a double burden of teaching work.

The Dominican Republic’s new School Food Program [Programa de Alimentacion Escolar, PAE] is ambitious because it aims to address both health and education equity, among many other goals. Once rolled out across the nation, all elementary and secondary students will receive breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack. This, in turn, will extend public education to a full school day for children.

On my first trip to the Dominican Republic, I observed the double burdens coexisting in schools in multiple regions of the country. I also interviewed school directors, teachers, and parents who discussed this additional work from shortening classes to accommodate distribution and consumption of breakfast and snack, to providing plates and silverware to students, to cleaning them. Teachers addressing one double burden (malnutrition) face another double burden (teachers’ food work). Reconciling the relation of the two burdens will contribute to health and education equity and perhaps nudge the school food programming toward a just transition (Gilbert, Schindel, & Robert, 2018). As I review literature and data from the project, I hope to be able to continue conversations with the Ministry of Education officials responsible for the School Food Program. The research will hopefully support their incredible efforts to address multiple inequities experienced by the nation’s youth by eradicating multiple double burdens too.