Growing up in the small town of Tyre, Lebanon, gave Aseel El Zein a deep appreciation for Mediterranean cuisine. Meals were filled with fresh seafood, grilled kabobs, and tabbouleh salad drizzled with olive oil made from her family’s own trees.
Not everyone in Lebanon was as fortunate, though. The country had more than 1 million refugees from Syria and Palestine, many of whom were going hungry.
“The struggle of not having a reliable supply of nutritious food can take years from life, and more importantly, life from years,” the 27-year-old explains.
El Zein knew she needed to do something about food insecurity, so she began studying nutritional sciences. The Fulbright Program brought her to the University of Florida, where she’s already gotten to work breaking down stigmas around the campus food pantry and addressing the needs of hungry students.
She’s entering the final year of her doctoral program in nutritional sciences this fall. Afterward, she hopes to use her skills as a clinician and researcher to address the food and nutritional needs of people with disabilities, along with other vulnerable groups.
We asked El Zein about her studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what she had to say.
This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.
What prompted you to get into your field of study?
I wanted to empower people to have access to food that is sufficient, healthy, and culturally acceptable. I believe in the power of preventative medicine over medical destiny.
I also believe that before we can ask anyone to take responsibility for their health, we must make sure that they are empowered.
Studying nutrition and dietetics with a focus on food security equips me with the tools to cultivate that will in individuals and pave the way so that we shift health from the road not taken to the road of less resistance.
Please tell us about the work you’ve already done as well as your goals for the future.
During my graduate studies, I looked into public health nutrition problems that are common between my home country, Lebanon, and the U.S. My research on food insecurity led me to an often overlooked population: college students.
Limited financial resources, the rising price of tuition, and increased reliance on student loans have put college students — even those in one of the world’s wealthiest countries — at an increased risk of food insecurity.
Many people have been conditioned to believe a “starving student” is normal, or even a rite of passage.
My work also addresses food assistance use among college students, particularly at the University of Florida food pantry. My research in the lab of my adviser, Anne Mathews, PhD, showed that we need an alternative program model to provide food assistance in a less stigmatizing way.
I plan to create a campus-wide communication campaign to advertise the food pantry, normalize its use, and destigmatize food insecurity.
My goals are to continue to create a supportive environment by advocating for systemic changes. For example, I hope to contribute to revising the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for college students.
Additionally, I hope to continue to shed light on the vulnerability of international students, who have a higher prevalence of food insecurity compared to in-state and out-of-state students.
What obstacles have you encountered as you move toward your goals?
Reducing food insecurity among college students is an extremely challenging problem. In most societies, food banks and pantries are considered a form of social welfare and thus carry a degree of social stigma that violates self-sufficiency ideals.
People who are struggling with food insecurity do not want to be viewed as individuals who cannot provide for themselves or their families. My research indicated that students felt embarrassed by their food insecurity and didn’t want their classmates to know they needed to use the food pantry.
Some students even feel as if surviving on ramen noodles and eating poorly is part of the college experience. Breaking through these stigmas is a challenge, because the root cause is embedded in society.
Food has served as a major inspiration for your work and ambitions. Can you tell us about your favorite food memory?
My fondest memories of food involve my family.
We would all gather around a huge, freshly caught fish stuffed with cilantro, garlic, olive oil, herbs, and squeezed lemon at my parents’ apartment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. For a few dollars, you could get enough fruits and veggies for the entire family.
As I saw the refugees from neighboring countries being forced out of their homes, I realized that this was not an experience available to them or their children anymore.
This realization became one of the driving forces in my work. While I could not bring their homes back, I knew that no one should be deprived from the right to food [access].
Why is food security important to you?
In a world of wealth and resources, it is unacceptable that hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger. Access to the food needed to sustain a healthy and active life is a fundamental and universal human right.
Human development theories emphasize that an individual’s basic needs must be met first for higher skills to be achieved. In Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, food is portrayed as a necessity for survival, achievement, and self-actualization.
Despite these notions and the fact that “Zero Hunger” is one of the Sustainable Development Goals for the 2030 agenda, statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization show a substantial number of people are deprived of their right to food. As of 2019, nearly 820 million people in the world are hungry.
Hunger statistics alone don’t capture the full story, though. Many individuals have sufficient energy from food but lack consistent access to safe and nutritious food that can be obtained in socially acceptable ways, resulting in a lower-quality diet and nutrient deficiencies.
This issue is of utmost importance to me, as the loss of food security is the loss of freedom and dignity.
What message would you like to give to students who don’t have enough to eat?
I would like to emphasize that food insecurity is not emblematic of a flaw in character or effort. People of all backgrounds can find themselves in difficult situations.
The good news is that there are caring people who have acknowledged the issue and dedicated themselves to minimizing it. Know that you are not alone and that you can seek assistance. Regardless of your financial situation, you matter.
Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Prevention, HealthyWay, Thrillist, and more. Keep up with her on Instagram and check out her portfolio.