Reflections of an IMMANA Fellow: Matilda Laar

Dr. Laar entered her IMMANA Fellowship with a background in nutrition and a focus on maternal and child under nutrition, food systems, and health. Her fellowship project examined nutrition monitoring tools in the Ghana School Feeding Program. The outcomes of her research will help schools simultaneously improve meal quality and advance local agriculture. Here Matilda discusses her IMMANA Fellowship experience with Caitlin Joseph.

How has your IMMANA project impacted you personally? Has it changed your mind about anything? 

I believe I am now more comfortable liaising with professionals from other fields to pursue similar goals. In addition, I have been exposed to working with a government institution which typically has different work dynamics from the academic institution I have previously worked with.
Visiting several schools for my project has stimulated a new research interest in looking at the school food environment in urban areas. This new interest is not restricted to underprivileged schools served by the Ghana School Feeding Program (GSFP), but is inclusive of schools with privately-run school feeding programmes. My specific interests are to understand the nutrition quality of meals, physical activity levels of school children, the sanitation and hygiene in schools, and how these factors are associated with malnutrition (both under- and over-nutrition) in children.
I now have a better understanding of how the GSFP works on the ground and appreciate better the efforts that are needed by several players to achieve the agricultural-nutrition-education- health outcomes. I used to think that linking the local farmers to the caterers was straightforward, but I have changed my mind about this. I now understand that, although the link of local small-holder farmers to the caterers of GSFP could benefit both sides, this potentially synergistic link is frustrated by local purchasing traditions and the delay in payments of the caterers who have to pre-finance the school meals. 

What are the next steps you anticipate for your project in the near future?

I look forward to disseminating my results to the GSFP Secretariat and publishing my findings. I will also be working with the Scaling Up Nutrition Academic Platform to write a Policy Brief on the GSFP based on my findings.
Please describe one experience during your project that exemplified the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to your field of study.
As a nutritionist, I tend to primarily focus on nutritional quality of meals and not necessarily food systems and/or the food supply chain that influences meal quality. In my project, the knowledge of production, marketing and purchasing (wholesale and retail) element of the local food system was important in understanding why the link of local small holder farmers directly to the GSFP caterers has been highly unsuccessful. We found out that traditionally, wholesale purchasers called “market queens” buy from local farmers in bulk and sell to retailers in the markets. The “market queens” typically pay farmers at the time of purchase or on definite payment plans that were acceptable to these local farmers. Thus, farmers are usually unwilling to sell directly to the GSFP caterers because they purchased on credit and had uncertain payment terms.

What do you think is unique about the IMMANA Fellowship program and how has that aspect benefitted you professionally?

I think what was unique about the program was not being required to be stationed at Tufts University before and after fieldwork. This helped me participate in dissemination activities and interact with departments in the University of Ghana and other institutions that were working on related objectives.
In addition, the opportunity to share my project at the ANH Academy Week and the interactions with other IMMANA Fellows helped me build my network with other professionals and researchers in the Agriculture-Nutrition-Health nexus. This network contributed to securing my current position as a Faculty member at Department of Family Consumer Sciences, School of Agriculture at the University of Ghana.

One of IMMANA’s project goals is to balance gender representation in the research field​. As one of many female fellows in your IMMANA  ​cohort, can you describe an experience you had during your project (either a challenge or a triumph) that you think was unique to you, as a woman in your field?

During preparation for implementation, I had to meet GSFP leadership officials, district chief executives, education officers and other community leaders to get the necessary clearances for my project. Most of these officials were males and I often was told that, based on earlier communications, they expected me to be much older. I don’t want to view at this as negative, but I hope that through my encounter with them they are now aware that younger, early career female researchers can lead meaningful work too.

What advice might you give other early-career researchers looking to emulate your career path?

To identify mentors who are engaged in similar interdisclipinary research during their graduate studies. Identifying mentors who have a long history of working together in the host country is essential because they understand the local context and can introduce you to non-governmental organizations with similar interests. These associations help better understand the local situation and shape your project.
Lastly, early-career nutrition researchers should be open to learning from other disciplines and investigate integrated approaches to addressing malnutrition. Modern nutrition is an interdisciplinary and integrative science!
Find out more about Matilda's research:

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