Inter-disciplinary fieldwork on food systems in the Caribbean: Global market integration, land use, and the double burden of malnutrition

Smallholder Farmers in the Dominican Republic assess major obstacles to rice production. Farmers identified pesticide resistance and agro-chemicals in addition to marketing, decayed irrigation infrastructure, and an increase in flooding frequency. The Dominican Republic is self-sufficient in rice production, but diets are changing quickly and farmers face pressures from liberalization with the United States. Photo by Marion Werner, October 2017

By Sarah Robert and Marion Werner

Published December 19, 2017

Rising household incomes, multi-scalar supply chains – regional, national, transnational – women’s labor force participation, state food programs, and changing trade rules are altering food systems in middle-income countries across the globe. These factors shape and are shaped by dietary practices, as consumption shifts away from fresh foods prepared at home towards highly processed goods of low nutritional quality. As a result, populations face a “double burden” of malnutrition: undernourishment, on the one hand, and overweight and obesity, on the other.

“How can public policies on food consumption support not only nutritional objectives for the population in general, but also the livelihoods of rural producers?”
Marion Werner and Sarah Robert, Associate Professors
Geography and Education

In the Dominican Republic, for example, declining undernourishment rates (12.3 percent, FAO 2014), and increasing rates in obesity and overweight populations (23 percent and 54.8 percent, WHO 2016) reflect significant transformations in agricultural production and food consumption. In January 2017, the Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE) awarded Marion Werner, Sarah A. Robert and Ying (Jessica) Cao – experts in economic geography, education policy and public health, respectively – seed funding to understand the interaction of global market integration, land use and the double burden of malnutrition in the Dominican Republic.

In October 2017, Werner and Robert traveled to the Dominican Republic to answer a key question: How can public policies on food consumption support not only nutritional objectives for the population in general, but also the livelihoods of rural producers? They met with farmers producing rice and legumes, key staples of the Dominican diet, as well as representatives from local and national food policy organizations, to find out.

For a decade, Werner’s research in the Dominican Republic focused on economic restructuring of export industries and the gender and racial politics of labor. Only recently has her work shifted to food policy. To understand the livelihood of rural producers, Werner conducted workshops in the northeast with rice farmers, and met with legume farmers in the south, to gauge differences in obstacles and strategies for farmers to succeed under current market and climactic conditions. Werner also observed a food sovereignty workshop, just north of the capital, with marginal farmers who produce a mix of subsistence crops on non-irrigated plots in an area of contested land.

School lunch at the public secondary school, Metropolitan Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Sarah Robert, October 2017

Robert has been investigating school food policy around the world, particularly in Latin America, for the past decade. While her previous research has examined the intersections of gender, labor and school food policies, labor was examined within schools, not with food producers. The Dominican case was a new context for her justice-oriented policy research. As farmers shift their practices, the Dominican Republic is undertaking a veritable revolution in education that implements full-day schooling and school feeding, with an express commitment to support local suppliers, including farmers.

Meetings with the Ministry of Education’s planning department and visits to schools allowed Werner and Robert to understand and explore comprehensive school food policy in practice. Notable in the country’s school food policy is the commitment to source fresh foods from local farmers. Additionally, they consulted with representatives from the World Food Programme and the ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), former legislator Guadalupe Váldez, who was instrumental in the passage of the country’s National Food Security and Nutrition Law in July 2017. Intensive fieldwork afforded Werner and Robert a clearer understanding of the policies and the on-the-ground practices in the country to support nutritional objectives and the livelihoods of farmers.

Three areas emerged for further research. First, new farm-to-school sourcing initiatives require more research to understand their impact on children now attending school all day, school infrastructure, and farmers supplying grains, vegetables and legumes to the program. Second, how the expectation to feed hundreds of thousands of children multiple times daily adds a burden to a struggling education system needs to be explored in relation to educational outcomes. Lastly, there is a clear need for a macroeconomic analysis of changing consumption, production and import patterns to better understand the prospects for local farmers and for broader nutritional outcomes. Work in these three areas will be developed in the coming months, as Werner and Robert combine efforts with Cao to deepen the analysis.