From emergency relief posts to missions organized by faith-based organizations, the dietetics community is no stranger to international volunteerism — and the expertise and skill sets of registered dietitian nutritionists often make them unique assets on these initiatives. Yet RDNs and other practitioners face a major challenge working in developing nations: a lack of appropriate nutrition education aids.
"In searching through catalogues of nutrition education materials, I found they depicted foods, people and settings that these [overseas communities] have never seen," says Dixie Havlak, RD, who has worked in rural Nicaragua and Honduras. "It takes months to put together information, and that makes people think twice about going overseas and doing work."
In countries where people may not have a very sophisticated understanding of science and most local community nutrition workers have little training or poor access to education materials, health practitioners must go back to basics. Visual aids that meet the needs of minimally literate people are especially important, Havlak stresses.
"In the U.S., most people know we get nutrients from food. But some cultures may not even have a word for that," she says. "We have to go back to the very fundamentals of nutrition, health care and how the body works."
Culturally appropriate and effective education aids not only support volunteers, but also the efforts of practitioners whose careers are with government agencies, NGOs or military services. "Before and after my journeys in Central America, I often met other people going down there — dietitians, nurses and medical teams who commonly teach about nutrition and health issues — who had to throw together health education materials at the last minute," Havlak says. "That seems really inefficient."
To help close the gap and support international nutrition education, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has launched a pilot project to develop a collection of free resources for health practitioners working in developing countries. Made possible through funding from the Academy Foundation through the Wimpfheimer-Guggenheim Fund for International Exchange in Nutrition, Dietetics and Management, the first phase of the collection will focus on Central America.
All RDNs, registered nurses, pediatricians, family practitioners, physician assistants and other public health workers with field experience in this region are invited to take an online survey to assess needs for materials and tools that could aid in international medical missions and humanitarian assistance efforts. Respondents also can submit examples of materials (handouts, posters, visual aids) they have developed or used in nutrition education efforts.
"When we can share materials, we improve our ability to serve the developing world and make it easier for more practitioners to volunteer," Havlak says. "Many people on the ground are desperate for material, and we can help them facilitate understanding of health issues and improve the ability to communicate that with the people they serve."