A few years ago, Mojisola Deborah Kupolati lost her mother to cardiovascular disease, which may have been exacerbated by a poor diet. She says it was this personal realisation about the importance of healthy eating that drew her to a career in nutrition.
Kupolati wants to focus on reducing the incidence of non-communicable diseases like hypertension, coronary artery and heart diseases, diabetes, certain cancers and malnutrition in children, all of which have been linked to unhealthy eating behaviours. Many of these diseases appear symptomless, but carry grievous consequences.
Through her recent doctoral work with the Institute for Food Nutrition and Wellbeing (IFNuW), undertaken at the University of Pretoria's Department of Human Nutrition, she has already helped a new generation eat healthier by developing a nutrition education programme for primary school teachers. She studied the implementation of this programme in the Bronkhorstspruit district —50 km east of Pretoria, Gauteng Province.
A great benefit of school-based nutrition education is that it can increase the attention span of pupils and improve their overall learning capacity, explains Kupolati. However, this is not the case for many learners and communities in South Africa.
Kupolati realised early on in her study that a critical barrier to creating healthy communities through better nutrition lay in unsuitable nutrition education strategies in the schools – both the methods and the materials teachers use to teach children about nutrition are inadequate.
She then randomly chose two schools in the Bronkhorspruit district – one to observe the impact of her programme (the sample school), and the other to observe business as usual (the control school), where the teachers would continue to use the books and materials recommended by the Department of Basic Education (DoBE).
Kupolati began by carrying out a needs assessment in the Bronkhorstspruit area to find out what the state of nutrition education was at schools in that community, using focus group discussions with teachers to investigate what knowledge about nutrition was lacking, what the attitudes towards nutrition were, and the possible impact nutrition education might have on the eating behaviours of the learners. She also tested the teachers' and the learners' nutrition knowledge, attitudes and dietary practices.
This exercise informed the development of a new set of nutrition education materials: a teachers' manual, a picture book, learners' workbooks and posters. Kupolati compiled the materials using selected constructs of the social cognitive theory and the meaningful learning model to explain the nutrition topics of the DoBE's curriculum. The information contained in the materials has been designed to help learners not only increase their knowledge about nutrition but also use the knowledge to benefit their lives and that of the community.
Kupolati explained to the teachers at the sample schools how they can use the new nutrition education materials during a workshop in November of 2014. After the teachers had used the materials to teach nutrition in grades five and six for the 2015 academic year, Kupolati once again tested the teachers' and learners' nutrition knowledge, attitudes and dietary practices.
She found that the teachers were quite satisfied with the materials, particularly regarding the use of infographics to convey complex concepts, and the convenience of having all the information they need at their fingertips. 'I was delighted that the teachers wanted to continue using these materials,' says Kupolati. She found out that the nutrition knowledge and attitudes of the teachers and learners improved tremendously.
When she began this project, Kupolati made a commitment to present her results to the DoBE. She presented her final results at a Management District Meeting of its Gauteng North District in 2016.
She has since made two other presentations to the Department, and is now awaiting a decision from the Gauteng Department of Education about whether the materials she developed will be used in nutrition education in the schools in Gauteng Province, and eventually across South Africa.