By Ashley Ward

As a high school student getting ready for university, I promised myself that I would take advantage of all the opportunities which came my way.  As a junior undergraduate at Florida State University, I figured it was time to leave my comfort zone in the US behind. I had been to other countries and had done some volunteering before, but the experience at FSU in a program called Global Scholars was unique.  Not only would I be running my own project for quite a long period, the program focused on volunteers learning to serve in their host countries with an open mind and a respectful demeanor.

Thailand was an easy choice because of the intriguing culture, delicious food and gorgeous scenery.  Choosing Warm Heart was an even easier decision. Not only were Michael and Evelind open to my ideas for a project focusing on nutrition, they had plenty of ideas of their own.  They made it clear that I could do whatever I wanted during my stay as long as I was a self-starter and had the drive to get things done.  I wanted to gain an understanding of what people in the Mae Pang subdistrict eat and if they were getting all the nutrients recommended by the Thai Health Eating Index (THEI). I was also curious about the quality of their diets in relation to where they get their food.

Before I left the US, I worked with Dr. Maria Spicer, a Food and Nutrition expert at FSU, to design a survey to better understand the quality of people’s diets. After getting here I realized that a fair amount of my survey needed tweaking in order to make things more practical.  With Michael’s help, we modified things in no
time and I was off surveying members of the community.

The survey consisted of three main parts: demographics, food sources, and a 24-hour dietary recall.  After asking people about their income,education level and other members of their households, I asked where they get their food and what kinds of fruits and vegetables they grow on their own land.  The last part of the survey consisted of people telling me what they had eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner which was super interesting. The Thais thought it a bit weird and would laugh when I asked how much rice they ate with breakfast.

I surveyed houses in the villages of Mae Pang, Pa Daeng and our own Huay Sai. I chose the villages and houses at random to ensure that I would be surveying a wide range of income levels and type of resident. Almost every afternoon at 5:00 when people would be getting home from work, Nian, Nit or Aom would take me to survey a household. I say almost every afternoon because as Evelind says, “We live in the moment here”.  Sometimes things  come up and your plans change. It’s just something you have to get used to.

The surveys took anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes as everything had to be translated, but the time always flew! Everyone was so welcoming, kind and open about answering our questions. I had a blast learning about each family, seeing where they live and learning about what they eat. Some participants even let us taste what they would be eating for dinner! It was sometimes very spicy but always delicious.

People were always excited to show me how they cook and what ingredients they use. I learned how to make many different dishes including nam prick, red and green curries, and tom yum soup.  I even ended up taking a cooking class based in Chiang Mai to solidify my new knowledge of Thai food!

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Traditional Thai herbs and spices

I learned a lot about the local flora of northern Thailand. When I first got here I saw PJ picking these little plant tendrils near the river which he said he eats with his noodles.  I now know these are called thom loong with a tender texture and mild flavor. They are one of the many plants that grow wild used in local dishes. My favorite is called cha om and commonly used in omelets. It is extremely nutritious and has a wonderful crisp taste!

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Thom long (left) and cha om available at Phrao market

I also learned about the famous “Thai truffle”, a mushroom called het top. The mushroom is only in season for about six weeks, and during this time everyone and their mother (literally) goes up the mountain and picks these mushrooms. Some days at Warm Heart none of the farm workers showed up to work. When Evelind asked where they were, everyone would exclaim, “They went to go pick the mushroom!” like it was totally normal. Het top have a hard outer coating and a soft middle and are loved because of their pop-in-your-mouth texture. People eat them boiled or stir fried and they are delicious both ways!

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The spring rolls I learned how to make in my cooking class!

When it came time to analyze the collected data, my findings seemed strange: all the participants had about the same average score using the THEI. I was initially frustrated at not finding the patterns I expected to see, but this became a lesson in things not always being exactly as they seem on the surface. I decided, with a little push from Michael, that I needed to look deeper at my data to see if people are actually getting the nutrients they need, not just the right amounts of each food group suggested by the THEI.

When I did this, I made the interesting discovery that although only 7% of participants were meeting their daily dairy requirement (which meant they were potentially not getting enough calcium, vitamin D, and protein), 38% of participants were getting adequate amounts of calcium, 85% were getting enough vitamin D, and 100% were getting adequate protein. This just goes to show that although the standard is useful, sometimes you have to do a little digging of your own!

I then realized that learning about people’s perspectives is more important than a preconceived opinion on a subject. I therefore conducted a follow-up survey asking people how they felt about their own diet, what they had learned about nutrition in the past, and what they thought about the THEI standards. Most people thought their diets were healthy or very healthy, and many people felt the standards were fair, but the most interesting answers came from the question asking what they knew about nutrition.

One lady in our village said there are  less chemicals and pesticides on food in winter than in summer. Another woman told me that eating foods that are in season is better for you while another said it was better to buy from the small village markets than from the larger district market because you can support the smaller scale farmers.

I wasn’t expecting such thoughtful insights. In the end, probably my biggest lesson was realizing that people in Phrao don’t think of food in terms of carbs, proteins and fats. Instead they look at food as an art and as something that brings people together which is meant to be special.

(Ashley spent 10 weeks volunteering at Warm Heart)