Victoria Rose, originally from Jacksonville, Florida, is a 2018 graduate of the Food Studies Master’s program at AUR. She received her B.S. in Dietetics, with a minor in chemistry, from Florida State University in 2016. While at AUR, Victoria pursued an internship with Bioversity International in their Healthy Diets from Sustainable Foods initiative. This work inspired her thesis research: Promoting the use of traditional, neglected, and underutilized species in the Mandla and Dindori districts of Madhya Pradesh. Currently, Victoria is a Program Operations Specialist for the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance at USAID in Washington, D.C.
Q.Could you speak on your current work and responsibilities with USAID?
VR Yes, to give a bit of structural background first, The Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) has seven offices, including three geographic offices. I’m in the Office of Africa. Typically, my role consists of administration and communication support, which includes assisting leadership with scheduling meetings, notetaking at different meetings, or facilitating tasks and requests for information that we get from other parts of the Bureau or Agency. I’ve also had opportunities to cover on different teams when there are staffing gaps.
For the last few months, for example, I’ve been covering the Central Sahel portfolio. This position has been more directly tied to some of my background at AUR. I’ve gotten to review applications we’ve gotten from partners for assistance and nutrition programs, so being familiar with the types of indicators they’re using for monitoring and evaluating the success of a project, or the types of modalities they’re using to provide food assistance based on the context on the ground, has been helpful. However, while the Food Studies program was much more focused on development and long-term program planning; BHA is a lot more focused on the emergency side of things—more short-term types of programs.
Q.What inspired or motivated you to study at AUR?
VR My undergraduate degree was Dietetics. This degree mainly prepares you to work in a hospital as a registered dietician. Getting into the program, I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I had also taken a Food and Society course during my undergraduate years—which reminds me a lot of the Food Studies program at AUR. The class spoke on food systems in general and the types of policies affecting food production and consumption. My professor had experience in the Peace Corps and at FAO; so, I had gotten close with him and was really inspired by his experiences. That was what eventually led me to AUR. After taking his class, I realized I wanted to follow a career trajectory related more to large-scale types of food policy and programs. And I knew that FAO was headquartered in Rome, as was the World Food Program (WFP). It just seemed like a great place to be for opportunities and learning. That was ultimately what inspired me to get into this field and apply to AUR.
Q.Did you have any formal experience with the food or agricultural industry prior to attending this master’s program?
VR I didn’t really have any extensive experience. I did get my B.S. in Dietetics, so my coursework was very focused on food service management, medical nutritional therapy, and metabolism; and then, like I mentioned, there was the Food and Society course that inspired me to change my career path. I also had a brief, ad hoc type of internship with Kailo Nutrition, which was a plant-based nutrition education and counseling practice in my hometown. I assisted the owner and founder with grocery store tours and helping her compile an online book detailing farms in north Florida as a resource for her clients looking to find alternative places for fresh and seasonal produce, and to support the local economy. So that was really the only experience I’d had prior to AUR.
My professor had experience in the Peace Corps and at FAO; so, I had gotten close with him and was really inspired by his experiences. That was what eventually led me to AUR.
Q.Do you think you would have ended up where you are now if you hadn’t done this program (at AUR)?
VR I don’t know. I think it really helped having the international experience in graduate school and there were a lot of opportunities for internships through AUR, which I think really helped as well. It can be challenging to get into USAID, or the UN organizations in general, without having a good amount of either field experience or your Master’s. So, I think between having the international experience and the Master’s degree—presenting a thesis—all those experiences definitely helped me with my current job.
Q.What were some of your most memorable classes, professors, and/or experiences at AUR?
VR One class I loved in particular (which isn’t necessarily tied to my day-to-day work now), that was really interesting was the Anthropology of Food Course. It got us out into Rome to explore the tastes of different food and learn more about the local cuisine. For one of the projects, I remember we had to visit a neighborhood; and so, a few of my friends and classmates and I went to Garbatella neighborhood, and we did a traditional Roman cooking class there. We went to a couple of restaurants, too, and had to write a report on that. We also had taken a field trip to an olive grove to watch olives be harvested and pressed to produce olive oil—and that was really awesome.
Outside of AUR, a few of my friends and I had gone to an agriturismo for a weekend just for fun. Even to go there and be removed from the city, but see food being produced at a small scale for this agriturismo was memorable. They provided cooking classes there and showed how they were cooking everything.
And then, something that was unique about the Food Studies program was being able to learn from all my classmates. Everyone brought a different perspective. People came from studying economics or political science, health, interdisciplinary studies, art—everyone had a different background and also different intentions for what they were going to do after leaving AUR. It brought about great discussions in class and being able to learn from all of them was really memorable.
Q.Could you speak on your thesis research and your experience with the research process?
VR I had an internship with Bioversity International for about a year and a half. I was working on their Healthy Diets from the Sustainable Foods initiative on one of their nutrition sensitive projects. They were researching six types of neglected and underutilized crops, targeting communities in Mali, India, and Guatemala, and looking for opportunities to integrate these types of crops into the local market. They’re really nutrient dense and can be grown on marginal soils. It’s a great way to promote climate smart agriculture and biodiversity, while also giving people that nutritional diversity in their diets.
I decided to have my thesis relate to my internship, so they kept me on as an intern to do my thesis work there. It was a really great opportunity. After I did the two semesters at AUR, I moved back home and worked on my thesis pretty much full time, but was working remotely still for Bioversity.
It was great to be familiar with the project and be able to tie it into my own interests in nutrition. What I did for my thesis was estimate the nutritional output of two of these focus crops (millets) versus similar staple crops being grown in central India to determine which crops are giving the most nutritional bang for our buck. Additionally, I carried out a projection based on climate change scenarios to look at what the nutritional output for these crops could look like in the future. I wanted to see if, since these neglected crops can be grown with less inputs and on marginal soils compared to staple crops, they could do better in the future in terms of nutritional yield.
Q.What did you find?
VR Because a lot of the neglected crops haven’t received as much attention as staple crops in terms of research and technological investments, the types of varieties available right now aren’t the most successful when compared to rice, maize, or wheat—things that have been given a lot of attention and are given much more land to grow. Despite the nutritional benefits of the neglected crops, because they do not produce comparable yields to staple crops, they do not provide as high a nutritional yield. It’s still promising though, but requires giving additional research, attention, and even land to these neglected crops. There are definitely opportunities to obtain higher amounts of protein and micronutrients through these neglected crops compared to staple crops.
Q.What is one piece of advice you have for current M.A. Food Studies students as they approach their thesis work?
VR This [at AUR] was my first experience writing a thesis. And compared to my undergraduate studies, which were very science-heavy, this Food Studies program was really my first experience at doing comprehensive literature reviews and writing in general. So, it was challenging for me in that way too.
I’d say initially, one thing that would help as you’re trying to come up with your thesis topic is reading any literature on subjects that generally interest you—even just to see what other people have done. Ask yourself if there are any gaps or if you could apply their research to another area or location that you might have more knowledge of. See how you can adjust the gap or take a spin on something that already has interested you. That’s what I did with my thesis. I had read an article on the concept of a nutritional yield, and I thought, I haven’t heard of that before. That’s really interesting. It would be really cool to see if you could project nutritional yields into the future and understand, with climate change being considered, how that could affect the nutrient availability. Just regularly reading literature is a great way to develop your own ideas or thoughts and start to ask those research questions.
And then, as you’re writing, I’d say it’s very helpful to try and stick to a schedule. It was challenging for me, but trying to plan out months, weeks in advance for when I’d want to have different sections of the thesis done. Because mine was tied to my internship, I did have regular check-ins with my internship supervisor, which helped ensure that I was submitting deliverables on time because she would be reviewing them. And I did try and treat my thesis like a fulltime job.
It was really worth the time and dedication. It seemed really daunting, but I like to say it’s still probably my greatest accomplishment. It's something you get to be the subject matter expert on. I know this is far down the line, but even when you get to the point where you have to present it, you walk into the room—and it can be nerve-wrecking—but I was also thinking, well, I’m the one who knows the most about this. I just spent months of research on this. This was something I’m an expert on now. It really does give you that sense of confidence in the work you’ve done.
Q.Do you engage with your thesis topic material at all in your work today?
VR Not as much day to day, but I will say it is still interesting seeing even now, as I review program applications that have nutrition, food security, and agricultural components tied together, I’ve seen similar types of interventions proposed in different programs. Having the familiarity of how different sectors can be linked together is very helpful.
Q.What events or publications would you suggest to someone looking to delve deeper into the food/agriculture world?
VR I don’t know necessarily about publications in terms of research and literature, I kind of just read anything I see that sounds interesting. I do regularly look at Food Tank for different articles. They separate their publications based on climate smart agriculture, policy, or sustainability. That’s a good website to check out for different types of articles. They also recommend different books, podcasts, or movies to check out for different food related issues.
And then, for my field now, kind of shifting more towards humanitarian work and development, I also listen to podcasts like Rethinking Development, which speaks more to international development in general; but it does touch on food security and climate change issues in general, especially if there’s currently something relevant in the media. I also read articles on the New Humanitarian. Similar to Rethinking Development, the subject matter can be broader, but you can search for articles by subject and read about food, nutrition, agricultural livelihood issues…
More for fun, I like to watch Anthony Bourdain’s show and have been reading his book lately— and Stanley Tucci’s book as well. Those are a way to still learn about cuisine, food, culture, and other places I haven’t had a chance to travel to. It does still kind of inspire you.
Q.What do you identify as an area of food/agriculture studies that needs more attention today?
VR My answer might be a little biased, but I really think climate smart agriculture and specifically, increased attention to local and traditional crops. It was cool to see firsthand in my thesis how different stakeholders were able to work together in a project to provide further research and technological development—and even promote changes in policy to promote the production of millets in India. It makes me believe there’s opportunity for crops like millet elsewhere that can provide that rich nutrient portfolio and help farmers adapt to climate change, preserve biodiversity, and stimulate their local economy.
But it is challenging; and I even see that in the field of humanitarian assistance now. We’re supposed to focus on the most urgent needs for the world’s most vulnerable. It takes a lot of time, investment, and engagement to do these more long-term targeted projects. It’s hard to balance those goals, especially when you’re wanting to help people on a large scale, for something more urgent. It is easy to see the desire for biofortification of staple crops that are grown at a massive scale to improve nutrition for a larger population. So, it’s definitely a balance and a challenge; but I do think there’s a lot of opportunity for climate smart agriculture and neglected crops.
One thing I’m seeing, at least in a few places, is the complementing of humanitarian programs and development or peacebuilding types of programs. So, when there are short-term and more long-term projects happening at the same time, it’s helpful to understand where there are opportunities for them to work together and benefit from each other.
Q.How do you view the future of sustainable production and consumption? What are concrete or tangible changes you have identified as making a measurable impact in the next five to ten years?
VR I’ve thought about this one a lot actually. I don’t know about concrete or tangible changes necessarily, but I think there’s definitely a balance between what we as individuals and consumers are responsible for and how we can contribute to sustainable production and consumption; and then what needs to happen at a larger scale in terms of policy and influencing the sustainability of production practices. I do think ultimately there should be policies in place limiting emissions involved in production and commitments to neutral emissions. And then in the U.S. in particular, policies to reduce food waste would also be critical. I believe that’s happened elsewhere in the EU already.
*All opinions reflected in this interview are solely Victoria Rose's and in no way representative of USAIAD/BHA.