After Conducting a Nutrition Study in India, a TCI Alumna Goes Global
As a TCI scholar pursuing a PhD in international nutrition, Kathryn Merckel led a trial testing the potential of orange-fleshed sweet potato to improve nutritional outcomes in Uttar Pradesh, India. After graduating in 2020, Merckel now works to improve nutrition through interventions across the world as the associate director for nutrition and food systems at the international development nonprofit ACDI/VOCA.
A USAID implementing partner, ACDI/VOCA works in developing countries to strengthen local market systems to advance resilient, inclusive, and sustainable prosperity. Merckel works with teams in the field to integrate nutrition into the organization’s projects, ensuring that their investments have positive impacts on the capacity of local food systems to provide healthy diets and that households utilize nutritious foods to improve their health.
“One of the more exciting aspects of my role is to advocate for nutrition and food systems development as a tool to help achieve long-term and ethical economic growth, rather than just viewing it as an outcome,” Merckel said.
Through her work, Merckel supports interventions across the world, including in West and East Africa, Bangladesh, and India. One such intervention aims to improve the market readiness of farmer producer organizations (FPOs) in Andhra Pradesh, India, drawing on resources established by TCI’s FPO Hub. A project called IGNITE, which Merckel likened to TCI’s TARINA project, seeks to build the capacity of African agricultural institutions to integrate nutrition and gender into their programs and businesses.
“My dissertation fieldwork was a great introduction to designing, implementing, and evaluating nutrition-sensitive interventions at the ground level, but I wanted to gain experience with what it was like to work on these types of projects at scale, creating positive impacts across national and regional food and market systems,” Merckel said.
Merckel was drawn to ACDI/VOCA by the opportunity to expand the reach and impact of her work. “My dissertation fieldwork was a great introduction to designing, implementing, and evaluating nutrition-sensitive interventions at the ground level, but I wanted to gain experience with what it was like to work on these types of projects at scale, creating positive impacts across national and regional food and market systems,” she said.
She also values ACDI/VOCA’s methodology, which she described as innovative, ethical, and sustainable. She and her colleagues work closely with local actors like entrepreneurs, financial institutions, and cooperatives to understand why markets are failing to meet community needs and to develop adaptable, contextually appropriate solutions.
Merckel said that her time at TCI has been crucial to her success at ACDI/VOCA. The experience of designing and implementing her research project in Uttar Pradesh—identifying study locations, connecting with local organizations, hiring and managing project staff, writing and deploying surveys, and managing, analyzing, and reporting on complex data—left her well-prepared to provide support and guidance throughout the process of proposing, implementing, and evaluating projects that are often national and regional in scope.
Likewise, the interdisciplinary nature of the TCI research group exposed her to a broad range of expertise and viewpoints, empowering Merckel to think about complex problems from different angles and develop holistic and contextually appropriate solutions.
“On any given day, I work with agriculturalists, economists, gender and youth inclusion experts, and more,” Merckel said. “The cross-cutting and diverse knowledge of these many subjects has allowed me to work effectively and productively within these many fields and communicate how each can be leveraged to improve nutrition and food security.”
Featured image: Kathryn Merckel holding a baby goat during a trip to Rwanda. (Photo provided)