Christmas Day found Janet Stucky cleaning minnow-like fish in her apartment in the West African country of Benin. Her desire to promote a healthy diet using locally available food fueled her two-and-a-half-year Mennonite Mission Network ministry. After Stucky's careful preparation, her Christmas gift to Beninese children was dried and ground into a protein-rich powder to supplement weaning porridges, an African version of baby food. She wanted to offer nursing infants a wholesome transition toward solid food.
Stucky taught food science and nutrition courses in United States universities for more than 40 years; 23 of those were at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Then in 2013, Stucky left the academic world to work with the Bethesda Hospital complex, a holistic health ministry begun in 1990 by an interdenominational effort of churches in Benin and of Mennonite Mission Network.
Feb. 10, just days before completing her assignment, Bethesda Hospital inaugurated a nutrition center dedicated to the promotion of weaning porridges to carry on Stucky's initiative. The center was funded by the Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA. A 13-member delegation attended the ceremony to represent the North American Mennonite partnership with Beninese church institutions.
In a region where a long period of breast-feeding is still the norm, babies often glow with robust well-being until their mothers begin to wean them. Then, too frequently, malnutrition begins to set in. Usually, the first food a Beninese baby is given is a thin cornmeal-and-water gruel.
Stucky didn't try to alter this tradition. Instead, she and her coworker, Ibrahaima Adjarro, sought readily accessible and affordable foods to increase the nutritional content of the porridge. They proposed grains like millet and sorghum that contain more protein than corn; and supplements to enrich the preferred cornmeal option, such as the fish powder, soy flour, and ground moringa leaves. (Moringa is sometimes called "The Tree of Life" because of its health-enhancing properties.)
Stucky endeavored to raise the awareness of healthy food choices in other ways, too. She and her colleague, Rigobert Sossa, conducted workshops for the gardeners who work the land just outside Cotonou, Benin's largest city. These gardens supply fresh vegetables to markets and restaurants. Sossa, a specialist in cross-cultural communication, began as Stucky's language teacher, then joined his skills to Stucky's vision to increase understanding about the role food plays in the nation's health.
During the months of October and November 2015, Sossa and Stucky took a six-week trip that crisscrossed the country, teaching nutrition principles in isolated communities to more than 600 people
"The objective of our trip was to [help participants maximize the benefits of] locally grown foods to keep healthy. We were overwhelmed with the gratitude and enthusiasm expressed for our presence, our teaching, and our visit," Stucky said.
She observed that factors other than a lack of food contribute to poor nutrition: lack of access to clean water, inadequate sanitation in the community, and the absence of good individual hygiene practices. Often available water contained pathogens and chemical contamination that contributed to malnutrition.
"Even when food consumption was sufficient, diarrheal disease and infection related to water was a primary cause of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies," Stucky said. "Our classes incorporated hygiene and sanitation practices along with ways to improve meals to live healthier, more productive lives."
Stucky is currently visiting friends and family and reporting to her supporting churches before embarking on her next mission assignment in August – this time with Mercy Ships, an international organization that operates the largest nongovernmental hospital ship in the world and provides free health care for patients in need. On-board, Stucky will assume the responsibilities of hospital dietitian/infant-feeding coordinator.
"I look forward to a year of new adventure and opportunities to serve the people whom I have come to know and love," Stucky said.
Her faith in God was strengthened during her time in Benin, Stucky said. As she observed her African colleagues praying for their daily needs, she learned to communicate more frequently with God, being mindful of things she had often taken for granted.
"I was so impressed with the deep faith of the African people, and learned to depend more on God rather than attempting to be so much in control," Stucky said.