Have you ever heard the saying, “You are what you eat?” In working for Helen Keller International, I’ve come to realize that this simple adage can mean different things to different people. In America, we often say it when we’re talking about losing weight. In developing countries, this simple phrase becomes a powerful reminder of the life and death impact nutrition can have on the lives of millions of people, especially young children. No one understands the importance of nutrition better than Dr. Victoria Quinn, HKI’s Senior Vice President of Programs. I met with Victoria recently to learn more about her background in nutrition and her views on the importance of nutrition on world health.
From “Born Free” to international nutrition: “It’s something that’s been in my blood since I was very young. It was a time of the big 1970s famines in the Horn of Africa, and I remember watching some of the charitable appeals on TV and saying to my mother that I wanted to do something about hunger; I just had join the fight. Seeing the movie “Born Free” as a little kid also swayed my interest to head to Africa someday. I am also genetically predisposed since I had loads of relatives who had committed their lives to social work, including civil rights. I also had a bent towards this type of work myself and began to take on volunteer assignments including with the Vietnamese Orphan Air Lift after the fall of Saigon and at the Helen Keller ward at the California School for the Deaf and the Blind in Berkeley, which housed children who were deaf and blind from rubella. It all came together while a freshman studying at UC Berkeley, when I met Professor Doris Calloway, the pioneering nutritional scientist who was one of the first women to make a mark in the international nutrition arena. She inspired me to become a nutritionist so I really could do something about malnutrition and world hunger. Since then, I’ve never looked back.”
16 years in Africa ending with a PhD: Victoria earned her Bachelor’s in Nutritional Science from UC Berkeley and her MSc in International Nutrition with a minor in Medical Parasitology from Cornell. She then headed to Nairobi to work as Cornell’s program coordinator for 9 years on a joint nutrition program with UNICEF in eastern and southern Africa. Later she moved to Malawi and afterwards to Ghana with her husband and infant son. In Accra she took five years off to enjoy this family time as well as earn her PhD from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The PhD entailed writing a book on the political economy of malnutrition and hunger in Malawi over the period from 1936 to 1990. After 16 years straight living in Africa, she finally relocated back to the U.S. in 1998 moving to Washington, D.C. where she worked in promoting broad scale infant and young child feeding programs with the DC based Academy for Educational Development. She then joined Helen Keller International in her current role in late 2006.
Nutrition focus at Helen Keller International: Under Victoria’s leadership, Helen Keller International works with partners to implement the Essential Nutrition Actions (ENA) framework to deliver an integrated package of cost-effective nutrition actions that are proven to reduce maternal and child under-nutrition and associated mortality and morbidity. In addition, Helen Keller International’s Homestead Food Production Program is a proven approach for improving food security and nutrition among vulnerable populations. Families are taught to grow year-round gardens that contain micronutrient-rich fruits and vegetables and small farms for raising poultry and livestock. Millions Fed, a 2009 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute, named HKI’s Homestead Food Production program in Bangladesh “as one of the great innovations in agriculture programming in the past half century.”
Harnessing science for humanity: “Tight focus and quality is a hallmark of Helen Keller International, so you could say we are a boutique NGO. Yet, because of our productivity, we have a really huge footprint. We also put a high premium on undertaking cutting-edge research and staying ahead of the curve. And we’re completely devoted to capacity-building in the countries where we work. We’re scientists and what we do is scientifically-founded but with an eye towards improving the lives of as many vulnerable people as we can. It’s very rewarding to be involved with something on this scale.”
Most gratifying moment at Helen Keller International: “I had an epiphany during one workshop in Dakar, which was attended by people from 13 of HKI’s offices. I looked across the room and was just so excited and proud that this was the team with whom I was working. From the country staff to the international team, this agency was investing in human resources in the region, investing in local staff, doing things in the right way and developing from the country level up versus just dropping in.”
What’s new and exciting: “Never before has there been so much global discussion about malnutrition and Helen Keller International has been in the thick of it, mobilizing action to scale up efforts. We feel the wind of that action under our wings. On a personal level, it’s very exciting to work on behavior change programs to encourage local populations to adopt more healthy ways to feed their children. Behavior change training and providing technical support for the staff in countries is a very tangible element nowadays that makes me excited.”
The inspiration of Helen Keller: “The woman was immense; an immense, global, timeless figure. I cannot fathom how she cracked out of her shell having been locked in as she was for so many years. She must have had tremendous optimism against all odds and used this to really make a difference to the world around her. I have never worked with a finer group of individuals than my HKI colleagues. As my colleagues say, we’re all pathological optimists. We work ourselves to the bone, but we’re still up the next morning, saying “let me see what I can do today.”
Favorite leisure activity: “I love watching my 18-year-old son play soccer. My husband worked over twenty years for UNICEF, and now it seems our son may follow in his parents’ footsteps working in international development.”