Piecing the global puzzle of food, health and culture
GSU emerita funds international travel award for nutrition majors

For dietitians, globalization means understanding the special role that food plays in every culture. For example, rice is not considered safe to eat in Indonesia unless blessed by ritual prayers during its growth.

GSU professor emerita Missy Cody has learned firsthand about these issues. She’s traveled widely as a technical adviser for the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Now she’s helping GSU nutrition students get global exposure by endowing a travel fund.

Her endowment will help students attend international and national professional conferences, meetings or other educational experiences. These opportunities can be critical because presenting research on the international stage can lead to connections with other researchers and employers. The endowment supports GSU’s strategic goal of achieving distinction in globalizing the university.

Travel also forces further examination of what ends up on a meal plate, how it got there and why – significant questions for most GSU nutrition majors, Cody said. Generally, they become dietitians in clinical of public health settings, with clients from increasingly diverse backgrounds. Understanding other cultures is imperative.

“In many areas of the world, people look at an authority figure like a dietitian and nod and say yes,” said Cody. “But to offer food substitutes, a dietitian must know the social situation of that person. The person in charge of the food for the household may be the mother-in-law or husband. People may not eat several times a day. Food may not be shared the same way. There is a big world out there where people don’t act the same about food.”

“We are grateful to emeriti faculty, such as Missy Cody for her continued interest in the success of our students.  This travel endowment opens international professional opportunities to engage with leaders from other cultures, which will have a profound impact on our students,” said Margaret C. Wilmoth, dean of the Byrdine F. Lewis School of Nursing and Health Professions.

For Cody, who taught at GSU for 23 years before retiring in 2009, food and culture make up a complex puzzle that drew her into academia.

“I like mysteries and putting pieces together,” she said. “Nutrition and food science are mysterious because you have ingredients and processes of different products, and I like knowing why that happens. What keeps something from being safe? Can we treat it so it becomes safe? How can we make our food supply better, not just here but internationally?”

Within a household, food functions within a complicated web of emotion, culture and health concerns.

“Food brings people together and tends to create structure,” Cody said. “How do you get the nutrients, satisfy the hunger, get the pleasure and do all this within your economic range? A dietitian has to be able to put together the pieces of the puzzle to structure meals for what someone needs and wants and within their health and cultural constraints.”

The endowment also represents Cody’s wish that she had traveled earlier in her academic career. When she began researching food safety issues, “few people in my area went to other countries because we were the center of our science,” she said. “We were where everything was going on.”

That viewpoint changed for her during graduate school, when her father-in-law funded a family trip to Europe.

“I was raised on St. Simon’s Island, but in Venice I saw and tasted shellfish I had never seen before or since,” she said. “They eat anything out of the sea, and it is all served intact. You don’t see that in the United States.” In Germany, “We had strawberries and asparagus at almost every meal, and I loved it,” she recalled. “All the asparagus I had ever eaten before was canned. The flavor was good, and it was beautiful.”

Over time, more global issues surfaced as the world’s food supply became more interconnected. She saw those firsthand working as a scientific advisor to the Food and Drug Administration in New York. She dealt with chemical and entomological issues involving imported food coming in through the Port of New York in Brooklyn.

“If I hadn’t had that exposure to the international food supply, I wouldn’t have had as much to share with students at GSU,” she said. “My philosophy of food safety would not have developed the same way.”

Cody said traveling taught her to appreciate the abundance, variety and cost of food in the United States. “In other countries, chicken can cost $9 a pound, and that gives you an idea of why people make the food choices that they do,” she said.

“Because we have such an abundance of food in the United States, we can make decisions that give us very little risk. We don’t have to choose between eating moldy grain and going hungry.”

Cody likes to quote the author Kurt Vonnegut, whose novel about the Galapagos Islands led to this discovery: “Food is almost the whole story every time.”

“Food formed the history of where we went in the world, on trade routes,” she said. “Food brings people together in communities and families. It can be our biggest connector, and divider.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424