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Maggie Nicholls

Public policy master’s student Maggie Nicholls in Bangladesh, where her research sparked a nutritional education program for impoverished women and dietary supplements for their children.

Rice price hikes devastate Bangladeshi poor

October 8, 2009

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By Roberta Staley

Maggie Nicholls learned an important life lesson last year from impoverished women living in the slums of Uttara, an otherwise affluent suburb of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka: happiness begins with having enough food.

That happiness "tends to elude them," says the Peterborough, Ont., native, who graduates this month with a master’s degree in public policy from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Nicholls’ graduate work took her to the south Asian country bordering northeast India for 3½ months in 2008 to survey the effect of soaring rice prices on the region’s poorest inhabitants. By the time she began, rice was consuming 85 per cent of a typical Bangladeshi family’s food budget—up from 54 per cent in 2007.

For those whose lives are already balanced precariously on the knife-edge of survival, any staple food price increase will push them into abject poverty, leaving them vulnerable to malnutrition and diseases like tuberculosis, dengue fever, cholera and dysentery, says Nicholls. "You aren’t going to have a chance to succeed in life."

Financed by a $10,000 grant from the Canadian International Development Agency, Nicholls surveyed the nutritional status of 110 slum-area women to determine the effect of the escalating rice prices on their diet between 2007 and 2008. She also recruited 34 women, many of them nursing students, from the nearby International University of Business, Agriculture and Technology (IUBAT) to be survey administrators. The students also acted as a control group.

Nicholls’ survey found that rice-price increases left the women far less able to afford animal and plant protein and vegetables. The increase hit the students, too, although they already ate a more balanced diet, partly because they were more knowledgeable about proper choices, she says.

Her efforts have inspired the IUBAT nursing faculty to undertake a yearly nutritional study of the Uttara women along with a nutritional education program and inexpensive dietary supplements for their children. They’ll also teach the women how to purify their water, which Nicholls says is easily done in the area by setting it in the sun in clear plastic bottles for eight hours.

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