GEOGRAPH SU17: She knows where the wild things are for dinner

Summer 2017 Newsletter
Monday, October 2, 2017 - 4:33pm

Powell interviews woman

Powell discusses dietary diversity and life in general with friend and research participant, Zaina Housseni, in the East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania in 2012. Photo: Keith Powell.

Bronwen Powell will host a workshop at the PAC Herbarium on Thursday, November 2: Traditional African Vegetable Use and Ethnic Identity 
Participants will learn about wild vegetables from Africa—many of which are weedy species also found right here in your back yard. Come hear about her research and get a new perspective on several old and familiar plants.  We’ll be tasting some as well.

Bronwen Powell joined Penn State in January 2016 as an assistant professor of geography and African studies. She joined Penn State after nearly four years as a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research. Powell has spent a large portion of her career living and working in Africa, where she examines the social, cultural, and environmental determinants of human diet and nutrition.
Powell grew up in a rural area outside of Toronto, Canada, and recalls spending a lot of her spare time roaming in the forest around her home and learning about edible and medicinal plants from her father. “We collected fiddleheads, mushrooms, and berries,” she said. “I still love collecting wild foods. If you see me looking at weeds on the side of the road you can probably assume I am thinking about dinner. It’s a thrill for me that my childhood hobby has become a central topic of my research career. I love to hear from people in different places what wild foods they eat, how they cook them, why they like them (or don’t like them), and how they manage their farms and forests to ensure they have access to a good supply of wild foods. In some places wild foods are essential parts of healthy diets and other places they are delicacies in local cuisine. I love too, that I can compare the ways other people use wild foods to the way my family does.”
A wild food, Powell said, is anything that grows or may grow spontaneously without human intervention.  The same species could be a cultivated food in some places and a wild food in others.  “For example,” Powell said, “what we call ‘pig weed’ (Amaranthus spp) in North America is cultivated in East Africa.  In other cases people transplant wild foods from the forest to places closer to their homes.”
Wild foods typically include vegetables, mushrooms, wild meat, fruit, fish, insects, and nuts. “The important thing about these types of foods is that they are also the types of foods that are nutritionally important: they are generally high in micro-nutrients and fiber and low in fat and sugar,” Powell said, “Given that these days food security isn’t about getting enough calories (that’s not so hard with cheap processed noodles and soda found almost ubiquitously across the globe), but about getting enough healthy foods that support a balanced diet, these types of foods can be very important. “Research shows that in some settings, a large portion of the fruits and vegetables consumed come from the wild.” 
“Low fruit and vegetable consumption is listed as one of the top ten risk factors for mortality globally by the World Health Organization. Worse, global production of fruits and vegetables falls far short of what is needed to meet the recommendations globally,” Powell said.
A nutritional paradox can emerge when communities transition from subsistence livelihoods, relying upon wild foods, to market-based and income-oriented livelihoods. “There are trade-offs for that income: people either have to spend time working at some non-traditional activity and may then have less time to grow a garden or go to the forest to collect wild food, or if the income is through some sort of payment-for-environmental-service scheme, there may be new restrictions on how they are allowed to use their forests. If there is fruit on the farm, kids usually eat fruit, but if a parent has to go to the market and purchase food, all of a sudden they have to decide between purchasing enough rice for four days or purchasing rice, fruit, and vegetables for one day. It is quite understandable that families with financial constraints struggle with those decisions,” Powell said.
Working with government officials to develop national food security and land use policies that make it easier for those families to get the nutrition they need is a meaningful way Powell applies her research. “It has been a great privilege to work with colleagues in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and other places, to support and have a small part in the policy change that they have driven in their own countries,” she said.
“From farmers and hunters; from women who never went to school but know dozens of wild vegetables as well as exactly where to find them and when; from parents who have raised their teen-aged sons to be responsible members of their communities despite the allure of ‘modernity;’  I have learned that there are many ways to learn and know about the world. I have met many illiterate people who have an amazing depth of knowledge about their world, as well as a lot of wisdom. I am continually amazed by how clearly (some of) my research participants understand the reasons they do what they do and the constraints that impact their decisions. In academe we get so caught up in our ways of learning and our types of knowledge that we can lose sight of the fact that there are other, equally valid ways of learning and knowing,” Powell said.
Powell recently received a Wilson Research Initiation Grant from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences that will support her new project on agribiodiversity and landscape diversity in foodsheds in Morocco. “I hope that next in terms of new projects is more work with the Gumuz communities in Ethiopia,” she said, adding, “and of course I’d love the opportunity to work in the East Usambara Mountains in Tanzania again.