A Fulbright scholar makes inroads in rural China.

By Jennifer Welch ’11 • Photo by Andrew Stokols

Feb. 16, 2012, 7 a.m., Beijing time. I’m inside a tiny cab, squeezed between survey boxes and research assistants. Our driver is making his way up icy mountain roads to a small school called Xinjian (新 建 学 校). Xinjian is one of six schools in my Ningshan county study, and this week, with the help of my team, I will conduct a baseline study of each school to determine exactly how much — or how little — students, parents and teachers understand nutrition.

Ningshan is a rural county south of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province and the home of China’s famous terracotta army. Ningshan feels worlds apart from China’s megacities like Shanghai and Beijing, but, in fact, rural areas such as this are home to nearly half of all Chinese.

While more than 30 years of economic boom have brought prosperity to China’s many citizens, poverty is still a reality in much of the countryside. For example, many rural children are stunted — physically and cognitively — compared to their urban peers because of malnutrition. More than a third of the elementary school students in Shaanxi are anemic; in some areas, like Qinghai province, the percentage is more than 50. Learning about the challenges faced by rural children compelled me to apply for a Fulbright and find ways to help place these children on an even playing field.

Rural children are not necessarily malnourished because they don’t have access to food; in fact, many come from farming families. One cause of malnutrition is that children and their caretakers know very little about children’s health needs. Children are not taught about health in schools, nor are adults given easy access to dietary information. Most food packages don’t even list nutritional information, as they do in the U.S. Instead, guardians rely on folk health knowledge, which can be problematic. A common issue is that parents will make rice or noodles the bulk of a meal so that children feel full, but as a result minimize the more nutritious proteins and vegetables.

As a Fulbright scholar, I experimented with ways to improve children’s diet through health education. I worked with several Ningshan schools to do a randomized control trial, created a health class curriculum, trained instructors to teach the class, and gave informational presentations to cafeteria workers and parents. When I returned to these schools six months after our initial survey, I found that students’ understanding of nutritional concepts had improved; in one test question, more than 54 percent could identify basic food groups, up from 13 percent at the baseline.

Though it was the focus of my research, the purpose of my Fulbright wasn’t only to help improve rural children’s health. In the coming decades, the relationship between the U.S. and China will become ever more significant to our two countries and the world. We are all stakeholders in this relationship, and finding ways to collaborate on even the smallest of projects will be the bricks that build constructive Sino-U.S. ties and a peaceful future.

After graduation, Jennifer Welch ’11 (East Asian studies and international relations) completed a Fulbright research grant in Xi’an, China. She works with the Committee of 100, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing U.S.-China relations.