New e-Learning Course from SPRING Bridges Nutrition and Agriculture Programming
When I returned from Peace Corps in Mozambique last year, my first job was with USAID’s global nutrition project, Strengthening Partnerships, Results and Innovations in Nutrition Globally (SPRING). As a teacher, I witnessed both the short-term and long-term effects of malnutrition in the Mozambican community where I lived, from early childhood developmental delays to lifelong physical and mental complications. Back in the U.S., I was eager to work on a project that promoted healthy eating, but through my work on SPRING, I quickly learned how complex malnutrition really is. Seeing SPRING address malnutrition in so many different ways — from farmer nutrition schools in Bangladesh to its 1,000-day household approach in Ghana — demonstrated the multifaceted causes of poor nutrition and the need for contributions from many different actors, including those working in agriculture.
Linking agriculture and nutrition seems intuitive when it comes to food production, but the relationship goes deeper than providing nutritious diets. Not only does agriculture supply food, but it is also the basis of the livelihoods for millions of people around the world, and it involves whole families, including pregnant women and mothers of young children who are largely responsible for children’s nutrition.
To help agriculture implementers become more nutrition-sensitive, SPRING and USAID have developed a new online training course to learn more about the links between agriculture and nutrition and to know how to use evidence-based behavior change methods in nutrition-sensitive agriculture practices. I spoke with Alyssa Klein, Food Security and Nutrition Specialist with SPRING, and Sally Abbott, Nutrition Advisor with USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, to learn about the new e-learning course and how it might benefit the agriculture and nutrition fields.
Cathy Landry: Can you provide a little background to how SPRING came to develop this e-learning course? What gaps were you striving to fill?
Alyssa: It has been a journey, but one thing we knew from the beginning is that humans are creatures of habit — doing things a new way can be challenging! Through SPRING, we worked with USAID Missions in Feed the Future focus countries and found gaps in the way agriculture practitioners thought about how their work connects to nutrition. Agriculture practitioners and program designers needed to be familiar with the evidence-based, behavior-change approaches that have long been used in the health field. We saw an opportunity to fill this need by adapting existing materials that explain the behavior change models as well as developing new guidance that speaks the language of agriculture practitioners. We didn’t want to tell agriculture projects “how to do nutrition” but instead help them think through their own work and how they could contribute to the underlying causes of malnutrition in relatable ways.
Cathy: What are the benefits of applying a behavior change lens to an agriculture or food security project?
Alyssa: Using a behavior change lens takes into account the priorities of the people affected by the agriculture or food security challenges an activity aims to address. It helps ensure that resources are used effectively and that money and time are not spent on interventions that don’t yield the expected changes.
With a behavior change lens, programmers start with the assumption that we as people act based on reasons that make good sense to them. In other words, we don't assume ignorance is the basis for action. This means that we as programmers need to understand from stakeholders’ perspectives why they are currently doing things the way they are. Behavior change approaches help us to systematically think through what practices can reasonably be changed and what the results of changing them would be. It also means thinking about what actions people can do now that will have a positive effect and create measureable improvements in well-being — whether in health, nutrition or agriculture.
Cathy: How does this training help make agriculture activities more nutrition-sensitive?
Sally: By itself it doesn’t do that, but it’s a good place to start. It provides those working with agriculture activities knowledge and skills so they can plan, design and implement activities that are more nutrition-sensitive. This training won’t make a newbie (like I was!) a behavior change expert in a day. It is the start of an iterative process in a really useful way. The training introduces the concepts of behavior change in an accessible manner and using relevant examples. It then walks through examples of activities that can be specific to a user’s programs. Behavior change is challenging and doesn’t just happen overnight, but this training provides users with tools to start (or enhance) that process. The training also makes it clear that the activities are not nutrition-specific interventions but rather addressing behaviors within the manageable interest and mandate of the agriculture-related activities.
Cathy: How do you see the concepts and tools in the training fitting into a typical market-led agriculture activity design?
Sally: The pathways show that translating agriculture gains into nutrition are not automatic. They show pathways where women’s empowerment, income from agriculture or production of nutritious foods can boost nutrition. What they don’t demonstrate is how to do this. This training shows designers methods for taking concepts into intentional changes in activity design. The idea is to help implementers systematically check and revise assumptions that have gone into the design as to how their activities will lead to improved nutrition and other food security and poverty reduction objectives. The interventions can be refined so they are as effective as possible at facilitating change.
Cathy: How do you see this training being used by your co-workers at USAID, at Missions and by your implementing partners?
Sally: My hope is that this serves as a capacity-building tool and a conversation starter. I hope it helps my colleagues learn more about what nutrition-sensitive agriculture entails (hint: it’s not implanting a cereal value chain activity and telling women to also grow a garden). I hope those who take this course learn enough to implement stronger agriculture programs that effectively and sustainably contribute to nutrition.
The Strengthening Partnerships, Results and Innovations in Nutrition Globally (SPRING) project is a seven-year USAID-funded cooperative agreement to strengthen global and country efforts to scale up high-impact nutrition practices and policies and improve maternal and child nutrition outcomes. The project is managed by JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc., with partners Helen Keller International, The Manoff Group, Save the Children and the International Food Policy Research Institute.