Jessica Bilecki

Jessica Bilecki (left) teaches gardening methods and plant varieties at the demonstration garden in Kossoye, Ethiopia, in December 2011.

Photo courtesy of: Jessica Bilecki

Jessica Bilecki

Since December 2009, Bilecki, in partnership with the University of Gondar, has been pioneering a household vegetable gardening initiative designed to combat malnutrition in Ethiopia.

Photo courtesy of: Jessica Bilecki

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Graduate student combats malnutrition in Ethiopia through gardening

Nearly every student aims to make their mark on the world. But Jessica Bilecki, a graduate student in Ohio University's Masters of Science in Environmental Studies program, is among the select few who are already doing so.

Since December 2009, Bilecki, in partnership with the University of Gondar, has been pioneering a household vegetable gardening initiative designed to combat malnutrition in Ethiopia. Through sustainability workshops in Kossoye, Ethiopia, Bilecki educates women and school teachers on how to maintain gardens using simple household resources.

The initiative is part of a larger program known as the Kossoye Development Program which aims to improve overall nutrition, benefit food security and raise awareness of nutrient deficiencies in the region of Amhara – where malnutrition is pervasive.

Members of KDP have been working on public health issues in the region since the 1960s. And if household gardens are an indication, its recent initiative appears to be making an impact. In 2006, only 16 households in Kossoye had gardens, compared with nearly 300 household gardens in 2011, according to KDP records.

The work complements Bilecki's studies, which are focused on local food securities. And it has also opened doors for leadership opportunities within the Ohio University community.

Bilecki currently heads up outreach and marketing efforts in the Office of Sustainability and serves on the Climate Action Plan Committee, which is a branch of the President’s Advisory Council on Sustainability and Planning.

On Feb. 3, Bilecki was the featured speaker at the African Studies @ Noon session, where she talked about her involvement in KDP. Through this Compass interview, Bilecki hopes to further engage the OHIO community in a conversation about effective and affordable ways to combat malnutrition.

How did you team up with KDP?

While I was farming and working at an outdoor education center in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a friend of mine traveled to Ethiopia with KDP. When he came back, he told me about the program. When discussing his potential to return, he told me about the potential need for a gardening consultant. I became very interested and landed the position.

What makes this project unique?

I think this project has a lot to do with recognizing what Ethiopians are doing well, and not discounting what they already know and do. We try to have a conversation about health and how vegetable gardening pertains to that. It’s really up to the people if they want to adopt the practice. It’s not something that’s forced on them. The point is to address malnutrition in a way that people can afford that is more sustainable.

How does your work with KDP enrich your graduate studies?

Having a broader, real world perspective and basic understanding of how projects like the KDP operate influences how I approach my classes. It not only makes my classes seem more relevant but I feel it helps me critically think about information I'm receiving, thus I participate more.

What does your graduate research entail?

Right now, I’m looking at the Athens Farmers Market, which has one of the highest rates of food stamp redemption in the state of Ohio. I want to know why this is happening, how low income people are accessing healthy foods, and what it is about this market and demographics that makes this possible.

What do you hope to accomplish through your research?

I want to enable low-income people to get healthy food while promoting local farms and farming practices that are more economically sound. Within that, I’m looking at a lot of different things like food security status and food desert residence, fruit and vegetable intake and social capital in the community.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I want to remain in the sustainability and education fields. I’ll be looking for jobs in offices of sustainability at institutions of higher education so that I can work to help institutions make more sustainable decisions but also to integrate sustainability into curriculum. Another option is to teach at a private high school working in environmental studies.

What do you hope to accomplish through your career?

Ideally, I’d have a job helping people understand that our actions do have an impact; we all actually rely on the resources of this planet. I want to help people understand how this happens.

There are so many different avenues for sustainability to manifest, and no matter what your interest is, you can really find a way to integrate it into your career or personal life choices. It’s not easy to change yourself, but you have a lot more control over yourself than anyone else.