Fall 2019

Working Life

Photo courtesy of Kristin Kohlmann

Kristin Kohlmann has a passion for keeping children healthy and well-fed. And to make it happen, she found the perfect partner with Project Peanut Butter, a nonprofit that works to treat the most extreme form of malnutrition in children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Kohlmann first connected with Project Peanut Butter in 2016 while working for Washington University as a field research coordinator in Ghana and then in Malawi. There, she saw firsthand how effective food therapy can help kids grow and stay healthy.

Project Peanut Butter uses ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) — a protein-rich, peanut butter-like paste that can be employed in homes — as an affordable treatment for malnutrition. RUTF has higher success rates than traditional milk-based formulas and has been instrumental in Kohlmann’s work. For her efforts, Kohlmann received a 2019 Forward Under 40 Award from the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

Kohlmann is now in Germany finishing her master’s degree in international health at Heidelberg University. She is studying how the maternal diet at the time of conception can influence children’s susceptibility to certain diseases in adulthood. In the future, she plans to resume her research in the field of acute malnutrition and is considering pursuing a Ph.D.

What have you learned about addressing malnutrition from your research and work?
There is a common misconception that acute malnutrition in children is caused primarily by famine or humanitarian emergencies. But actually, malnutrition is primarily a condition of poverty. Children are especially vulnerable because of a combination of social and economic factors that are exacerbated during times of acute hardship. Of the millions of children who have severe malnutrition, only 20–25% of them are able to access treatment. One of the ways to make treatment more accessible and affordable is through local RUTF production.

Our project in Ghana was to evaluate locally produced alternative RUTF in a clinical equivalency trial. My work has taught me the importance of cooperation in approach- ing these immense global health challenges. Our project would not have been possible without our collaborators at the University of Ghana and Ghana Health Service. Future projects and programs need to leverage these kinds of partnerships and to be designed with complex societal and economic situations in mind.

What are some other steps that need to be taken to solve global health issues?
Children today are more likely to live through infancy, to survive past the age of five, and to be given the opportunity to lead healthy lives than ever before. However, this progress has been uneven, and large inequalities between and within countries still exist. I think that we are finally acknowledging the complexities of addressing global public health problems. We’re recognizing that the health impacts of climate change, discrimination, and extremism are relevant to people from across the globe but have the greatest effect on the most impoverished and marginalized people, whether they live in Chicago or rural Malawi. And these types of huge challenges require a global response that focuses on reaching the most vulnerable people regardless of where they live.

What motivates you to help children in need?
It’s easy to stay motivated when you’ve seen how acutely malnourished children change as they recover. When a child begins to recover, a light comes back into her eyes. With every visit, she has more energy to smile, to laugh, and to cry. The people on the front lines of fighting against malnutrition also motivate me, especially clinic nurses who work hard in demanding conditions to give children the best possible futures. The sacrifices mothers make for their children also resonate with me and inspire me to use my talents to help children have healthy futures.

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