Mason professor wants more support for mothers and children suffering from food insecurity

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Constance Gewa. Photo by Creative Services

George Mason University professor Constance Gewa says that one of the biggest international problems we face is mothers and children worldwide chronically suffering from food insecurity and a lack of nutrition. Gewa, whose research has focused on countries in Africa, says that undernutrition can start in utero and get worse from there.

When children start their lives in poor nutritional status and it continues, there can be significant long-term consequences, said Gewa, an assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. For example, childhood stunting has been associated with reduced development and poor academic and work performance.

“When undernourished women become pregnant, it can affect their children’s overall health right away,” Gewa said. “Their children are likely to suffer from intrauterine growth retardation, low-birth weight and might not even survive or, if they do survive, they could struggle and fail to thrive. If they continue to face food insecurity and a lack of nutrition, their health and developmental problems will escalate.”

Gewa said there needs to be particular attention paid to young women, even before they become pregnant, to ensure that they are well-nourished and as healthy as possible.

“Addressing nutritional concerns and supporting the health of women and girls, at pre-conception, during pregnancies and between pregnancies, could help break the cycle of malnutrition,” said Gewa. “It’s a start, but it can’t end there.”

In addition, Gewa said it’s important to promote healthy child-feeding practices such as breastfeeding whenever possible.

“We know that the best and safest food for a baby is breast milk,” Gewa said. “In low-income nations, we promote breast feeding because we know it is safe and nutritious, but if a mother isn’t well-nourished then it is difficult for her to breastfeed her young child as recommended.”

Gewa’s work has highlighted high rates of food insecurity in small households in rural Kenya and the disconnection between promoted agricultural practices and the nutrition of mothers and children.

In general, she said, adopting agricultural policies that are nutrition-sensitive can lead to improved health and nutrition for mothers and children.

Small farm households “are most vulnerable to malnutrition. However, a number of agricultural policies are not sensitive” to poor farmers’ needs, said Gewa. “If the agricultural policies in a certain area do not promote healthful foods that a family can sustainably farm and consume, then that can lead to food and nutrition insecurity.”

Gewa is a leading expert in estimation of dietary intake quantity and quality in African populations, sustainable food-based strategies aimed at improving food security and nutritional and health status of mothers and children populations in resource-poor settings in Africa and diet-related behavior change. Gewa also worked as a nutrition team leader and a project coordinator with a child nutrition research project in Kenya.

Constance Gewa can be reached at cgewa@gmu.edu

For more information, contact Anna Stolley Persky at apersky@gmu.edu

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. In 2022, Mason celebrates 50 years as an independent institution. Learn more at gmu.edu.