GoAbroad Interview

Rachel Bahn - Food Security Program Coordinator

Rachel Bahn - Food Security Program Coordinator

Rachel joined the American University of Beirut in 2014, as an instructor in undergraduate agribusiness program and as coordinator of the graduate food security program. She studied economics and international affairs, and holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a bachelor’s from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Before relocating to Beirut, Rachel served as an economist with the U.S. Department of Treasury and the United States Agency for International Development, based in Washington, DC.

How did you learn about the position at AUB? What attracted you to work for the university?

I learned about the position at AUB shortly after arriving in Lebanon, through networking and the informational interview process. My current boss at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences was shown my CV and thought my earlier work on food security might be a potential fit for the new Food Security Program. I was invited to interview for the position, and the process went from there.

Students of the Diploma in Food Security program at the American University of Beirut

Joining students and a guest speaker during the summer Diploma in Food Security

You grew up in the U.S. What surprised you most about life in Beirut?

The thing that surprised me most about life in Beirut is that, in some ways, it is not so different from life in the U.S. At a superficial level, it even looks not so different: American brands and products (fast food chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, processed foods like peanut butter and root beer) are easily available here, in a way I didn’t notice when living overseas before. This is due in no small part because so many Lebanese have lived and worked outside of Lebanon. It’s not unusual to find out your neighbor’s brother lives near your hometown in the U.S., for example. Many young people even speak English with a perfect American accent.

You are coordinator for AUB’s Food Security program, can you share more about what it is that got you interested in this field? 

My interest in the topic of food and nutrition security runs through international development and economics. While an undergraduate, I decided I would like to work in issues around social justice and improving people’s lives. As I learned more, I realized that economic development was the most important factor in giving people the means to pursue those better lives, whether individually or through collective mechanisms.

American University of Beirut stand at the 2015 Global Forum on Innovations in Agriculture in Abu Dhabi

Attending the 2015 Global Forum on Innovations in Agriculture in Abu Dhabi, UAE with AUB students

My interest in development was reinforced by volunteer experiences throughout my university career, in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, rural communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, and New México, and Les Cayes, Haiti.

Overseas work and study experiences boosted my language skills and expanded my ability to understand how communities are linked in their conditions and by their common challenges.

After earning my master’s degree, I joined the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as an economist. My goal was to have a positive impact on economic development, by contributing to the mission of a large and important actor in the development field. The food crisis of 2007 and 2008 re-focused USAID’s efforts to the agricultural sector, and I found myself conducting economic analysis of multi-million dollar food and nutrition security projects. A few years later, I found myself in Lebanon and in a professional role with the Food Security Program at the American University of Beirut.

Was there a specific moment when you knew a career in food security was your “calling”?

I can’t cite any single, definitive moment that sparked my interest in food and nutrition security. It has been an evolving interest, building over time. 

How do you help students understand the concept of food security?

It’s easiest to start with the definition of food security and go from there: Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

To put it another way, food security is about ensuring that, on one end of the spectrum, no one goes hungry or is malnourished (for example, micronutrient deficient). On the other side of the spectrum, food security is about making sure that nutritious foods that support good health are available in the right amounts, avoiding over-nourishment (which can result in overweight and obesity and associated health problems). 

Attendees at the 2014 Arab Forum for Environment & Development in Amman, Jordan

Representing the AUB Food Security Program at the 2014 Arab Forum for Environment and Development in Amman, Jordan

How do we do that? What does it take to get the right food on our plates?

Food production and consumption involve, for most of us anyway, multi-step processes. Food is raised, transported, processed, packaged, sold in a market of some kind, handled or cooked, and consumed, or sometimes wasted. Food is essential, an unavoidable part of our daily lives and something we often take for granted, but it’s the result of complex interactions. 

Accordingly, food security is a vast, multi-dimensional topic. It draws on the fields of agriculture, ecosystem management, natural resources, food processing, food safety, nutrition, development economics, public policy, and more. And that’s also the fascinating and fun and challenging aspect of food security.

How can we achieve better outcomes for everyone, when we need so many things and so many people to work together?

Food security is a matter of concern for every community and every country in the world. It’s not only an issue for the farmers or for the nutritionists, but an issue that affects each one of us. Food security must be achieved for everyone, consistently over their lifetimes, despite seasonal variations or external shocks linked to climate change or market disruptions due to conflict. It’s an enormous challenge, and one we need talented young people to engage in, to get informed, raise concern with what they discover (or do not discover), ask provocative questions, and push against the status quo when it’s not working.

We need a new generation that is going to take food security seriously if we are to tackle it successfully.

Visitors at the Action Against Hunger offices in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

Leading a field visit for AUB students to the Action Against Hunger offices and program sites for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

Why is food security a uniquely interesting subject to study at AUB specifically?

Food security is an interesting subject, because it is so fundamental to us as humans but also because it is so complex. Students can approach the subject from so many different directions, and end up considering issues they never thought could be related.

So, why study food security at AUB? AUB is in fact the only university offering graduate-level academic programs in food security in the Middle East and North Africa region. Other universities may label their programs as food security programs, but they in fact focus on agricultural technologies or food safety. These issues are related, but they are not the same thing.

What do you love most about working for AUB?

Working with the AUB students is the most gratifying part of the job. The days when you see that the pieces are coming together for a student, that he or she is mastering a concept or skill or really engaging with an issue, those are very good days!