For students interested in global health, nutrition, health equity or the economics of food, there is a lot to learn in World Hunger and Malnutrition. The UW–Madison class, which is offered as an online, asynchronous course during the summer term, is an opportunity for students to explore the biology of nutrition as well as the socio-economic factors that affect food consumption.

“The class provides students with a broad understanding of malnutrition throughout the world,” says agricultural and applied economics professor emeritus Ian Coxhead, who teaches the economics-focused portion of the course. The class is cross-listed as Agricultural and Applied Economics/Agronomy/Nutritional Sciences 350.

An infographic designed by Avery Whitbeck, a CALS Global Health student, for World Hunger and Malnutrition. Photo: Michael P. King

Erika Anna, teaching faculty in nutritional sciences, serves as the other course instructor and focuses on the biology section. Together the two themes provide a comprehensive picture of nutrition and hunger that helps students see connections between food security and world events that may not be directly related to food markets.

“I learned not only about the biology in this course, but also how climate change, war, policies and pandemics can affect food, especially in developing countries,” says Isabelle Fuerst, a sophomore majoring in nutritional sciences with a certificate in global health, who was one of around 80 students who took the class last summer.

For Alice Onyango, a senior biology major, issues related to hunger beyond the food itself hit close to home.

“In the village in Kenya where I come from, there is hunger and no infrastructure,” she explains. “There might be food but people can’t access it. So, I learned how access can [lead to] bigger problems.”

The relevance and personal connection of students to the material is one of the main strengths of the course, and students are motivated to learn because of those associations. Students come from various backgrounds and countries, and they relate to nutrition and hunger in different ways.

Onyango, who plans to become a physician assistant, paid particular attention to the section of the course about prenatal and newborn nutrition. She is the mother of two boys and wishes she’d known more about these topics when she was a new mom. Where she grew up, the importance of nutrition for pregnant women and babies is not widely known.

“When I went to clinics, I don’t remember anyone talking to me about nutrition and how it affects my child,” says Onyango.

Anna realized that students would benefit from an outlet for processing their personal connections, so she allows students to select the focus of their final project in her part of the course. For Anna, one of the best parts of teaching the course was learning about the countries students chose to profile.

“Students wrote about food insecurity, anemia and breastfeeding barriers in Haiti, progress towards Sustainable Development Goals in Uganda, and nutrition interventions in Afghanistan, just to name a few,” says Anna.

The ability to follow their interests means students can form deeper connections with the material and focus on what means the most to them. Fuerst, for example, was able to further her interest in nutrition and patient care.

“I am currently a certified nursing assistant, and I plan to apply to school to become a physician assistant,” explains Fuerst. “This class gave me a different perspective and great understanding of how nutrition plays a major part in our health. I can emphasize the importance of nutrition to future patients so they can maintain their health and prevent future disease.”

Onyango focused on early childhood nutrition for her final project, and she’s eager to help others with the knowledge she has gained.

“I will make sure that what I have learned doesn’t end in this class,” she says. “The knowledge that I will acquire here will not only be beneficial to me but also to my community back in Kenya.”