Victor Rodríguez Ugalde spearheads a rapidly growing movement which is implementing new strategies to educate poor students about nutrition.
The New Idea
Victor Rodriguez has constructed an educational model which fosters active learning and improved communication skills among children. His ambition is no less than to change nationwide patterns of public education by showing the effectiveness of games and interactive lessons as compared to traditional rote learning. To do this he has begun to teach children about one of his own passions, food and nutrition. His educational methods are a radical departure from traditional Mexican schooling, and include a mobile museum, educational games, informational booklets with cartoons and quizzes, and many other materials designed to involve students in the educational process and encourage a positive attitude towards learning. Victor complements his graphic design skills with an ability to excel in public relations. This has allowed him to convey, to different audiences - such as parents, school directors, professors, journalists, and administrators - the importance of having his work included in the public schools.Victor uses texts but also has created an impressive array of his own oral, written, and graphic materials to generate playful interaction among children in the classroom. These professionally printed materials include stand-up displays, games which test the students' knowledge of nutrition, and pamphlets illustrated with cartoons. The geographical focus of his work is the state of Oaxaca, characterized by poor nutrition levels, disdain for indigenous people, and encouragement of repetition within educational settings. While the direct beneficiaries of his program are children 15 years of age or younger, the most outstanding element of Victor's idea is that all sectors of the population are included in the training. This guarantees continuity in the program and improves the chances for the institutionalization of the process. On the one hand he has involved mothers, and women in general, in the nutrition of their children, while teaching them how to prepare nutritional foods and how to recognize signs of malnutrition. On the other hand, he has educated children through activities with their teachers both inside and outside of the classroom, and recruited older students to accompany younger ones in activities or journeys to the traveling museum.
An emerging problem in the developing world is the lack of education concerning nutrition. The globalization of food patterns has made artificially flavored and preserved "junk food" widely available and very inexpensive in developing countries. This is changing traditional diets of fresh produce and local grains, and people in both urban and rural areas often are completely ignorant about the existence of nutrients, and the fact that some foods possess ingredients important for their health, which others lack.
In countries like Mexico, where poverty is widespread and public education systems are extremely deficient, people need access to appropriate nutritional education and encouragement to change their eating habits. Victor's state of Oaxaca has the highest levels of malnutrition in the country, in spite of a native Indian culture that developed, through the centuries, a diet based on a high protein combination of seeds, roots, vegetables, and animal products. The problem of malnutrition has become so severe in some areas that the average height of the population is decreasing, and degenerative illnesses associated with poor eating habits (such as chronic obesity, cardiovascular illnesses, and cancer) are becoming more common. Although it will be several years before the full consequences of these changes are felt, it is already clear that poor nutrition is responsible.
The essence of the challenge that Victor faces is the need to reverse malnutrition as a problem which results not only out from lack of economic means, but also from modern eating habits. Victor is seeking to address the problems of poor education and malnutrition through the recuperation of local dietary traditions. In this way he can offer low cost nutritional options for the local population and effect a change of thinking about social problems in general. Victor's games and teaching materials challenge students to think creatively and take a more active role in the learning process. As one example, Victor organizes contests after training sessions to test his students' newfound knowledge. Winners receive a "gourmet guide" which demonstrates different, healthy ways of cooking produce. Although the traditional style of eating among native Indian cultures still exists in the region, it is falling out of fashion. The importance of Victor's material is that it educates the young population in a stimulating way about the nutritional values of foods, while it simultaneously teaches their mothers to prepare combinations of dishes resulting in a well-balanced diet. This helps indigenous people to create a healthy diet based on traditional foods.
In order to maximize his impact, early on Victor began training a selected group of teachers who, in turn, have become proponents of the work. Every week he gives a training session to 50 teachers, which usually consists of demonstrations and suggestions about how to relate their classes to the everyday lives of the children. For example, teachers might take their students to a local market, assigning them the task of identifying different foods there and putting them in their proper food group. Through his training sessions Victor influences the teaching of more than 800 children, or 90% of the primary school population of the town of Etla. Once they master the techniques, Victor's apprentices seek to teach the materials in their schools where they usually receive positive feedback and requests to present their work in other locations. The students are all in primary education, between 6 and 12 years of age. The classes are held in public schools at no cost to teachers or students. In most cases, schools are charged a small fee for the materials distributed.
Victor's educational program combines a number of approaches, beginning with a portable museum that he displays in schools to give children their first exposure to nutritional information in a graphical format. Soon after, teachers trained by Victor engage the children in classroom activities supported by the materials he has designed, as well as out-of-classroom activities such as visits to local markets. The goal of this multifaceted approach is to repeat the same information in a variety of formats that will maintain the students' interest.
In the first two years of operation Victor's program has been instituted in a number of schools, and his mobile museum has appeared in several locations throughout the state of Oaxaca. Victor has been able to build support for his model among selected audiences (such as parents, teachers, and public administrators) who appreciate his efforts to institutionalize nutrition programs, and who themselves are among Victor's students. He is also training nurses and personnel of the Ministry of Health and Welfare with the aim of educating mothers about the health of their children. Simple activities such as measuring a baby's height and weight and monitoring food consumption allow parents to maintain an awareness of their baby's health.
Victor has been able to achieve all this thanks to a series of interviews with townspeople, school teachers, and administrators, which allowed him to gain a precise understanding of the nutritional situation in Oaxaca. He used the interviews not only to obtain valuable information, but also to reach agreement on cooperation with teachers and health professionals. Victor's current efforts in the field of nutrition build on his previous successes. He was the creator of a pilot system that the DIF (Agency for Family Development) adopted. This system focused on education of the women and mothers of the family about nutrition, teaching them the nutritional value of each type of food and showing them how to prepare traditional foods rich in nutrients. This form of women's education has been a great success thanks primarily to his innovation of cooking classes, in which the instructor cooks with the women while explaining the importance of a balanced diet, which is within reach of everyone. The results of this program led to the construction of 3000 kitchens installed in as many communities throughout Mexico, each accessible to 500 inhabitants on average.
Victor´s strategy places strong emphasis on self-management, financial independence and sustainability of each of the growing number of educational initiatives. His main expenditures are salaries and the maintenance of facilities. Victor intends to document his educational program and its impact in Oaxaca. He and his team are currently engaged in a systematic study of the results of their work. With this in hand, he plans to propose changes to nutritional programs and influence educational policy at the national level.
At the age of 17 years, Victor chose to enter the field of social psychology. A key influence in his decision was his own experience as a subject of psychoanalysis, which encouraged him to enter the field of psychology himself. Victor's study in social psychology helped him develop a vision of society in general, and kindled his interest in the social issues. He became interested in nutrition after observing the relationship between his own diet and health, and he has always been fascinated by alternative medicine. He sees food, a fundamental part of life and an ancient form of bonding among peoples, as promising terrain for testing educational strategies. To implement his ideas he has combined social sensibility, skills to translate ideas into programs, a network of support derived from experienced educational colleges, and incessant creativity.
Victor held important positions in the public Health Ministry before turning his talents to social entrepreneurship. He directed the pre-school education department of different public school agencies such as the CONAFE, the State Institute for Public Education (Instituto Estatal de Educación Pública or IEEPO). As member of IEEPO he designed a pilot system of education called Aula Abierta ("Open Classroom") which was adopted by the most prominent federal agency dealing with childhood education and nutrition: Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (Agency for Family Development). Victor left his position as school advisor within the Public Education ministry for his present social role as social entrepreneur because he strongly believed that it was possible to root social awareness, logical thinking, and ambition among students in poor areas. Although a systematic evaluation of Victor´s model has not yet been completed, there is growing anecdotal evidence of its success in terms of changing attitudes and values.