Helping babies get a nutritious start in life

Latifat Okara
Latifat Okara

Latifat Okara, MPH ’21, is raising awareness for mothers about the lifelong importance of serving healthy food to babies

May 28, 2020—A baby in a pink dress readily accepts another spoonful of banana and apple puree from her mother. She seems serious, contemplating the taste. Then her chubby hand reaches out for more, another satisfied customer of the baby food blends offered by Latifat Okara, MPH ’21.

The baby was filmed during a January visit to a Nigerian primary health clinic, where Okara gave a seminar for local mothers. Helping parents feed their babies healthier food has been Okara’s mission for the past three years, ever since she went shopping for food for her own newborn daughter and was dismayed by the processed offerings. It inspired her to start a nutritional education company and online community called NomNom Babies, and to come to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health last fall. Now weathering the COVID-19 pandemic back home in Nigeria, she’s thinking ahead to her next steps and recovering from a semester spent juggling the challenges of family responsibilities and adapting to online classes.

“I am impressed by how students and our professors adjusted pretty fast,” she said. “We didn’t stay stuck on the challenges of COVID-19; we adjusted and moved forward. It may not have been the way we preferred, but we got it going!”

Addressing babies’ nutritional gaps

Studies suggest that babies are hardwired to prefer sweet foods over bitter ones—perhaps as a protective mechanism to guard against consuming spoiled foods. But their preferences are still pretty malleable. What they are given by their parents at a very young age can establish preferences for healthy or unhealthy food that last a lifetime—with potentially significant health consequences.

Okara describes her childhood self as a picky eater. While she was growing up in Benin City, Nigeria, her grandparents used facial scarifications on her, a common local practice thought to be a remedy for children with bad feeding habits and regular illnesses. Although they meant the best for her, she said, she resolved that she would do things differently for her own children.

After graduating from Benson Idahosa University, Nigeria, with a degree in microbiology, Okara worked for oil company Chevron as a health, environment, and safety specialist. After she had her first daughter, she began avidly researching recipes for healthy baby food purees out of organic fruits and vegetables. Soon, other mothers started asking her for tips.

“Nutritional counseling and help accessing healthy foods are big gaps in Nigeria,” she said. “Mothers want good health for their children, but so many can’t afford good food and lack knowledge about nutritional basics.” In cities, especially, she saw that traditional diets were being replaced by unhealthy packaged foods.

To offer an alternative to commercial baby food, Okara launched NomNom Babies online in 2018. Through the platform, she has built up a community of more than 400 mothers from Nigeria and elsewhere who subscribe for recipes and nutritional advice. She hopes to eventually produce the organic fruit and vegetable purees, and partner with a government agency to distribute them to underserved populations at a reduced cost.

An ‘eye opener’

Okara chose to come to Harvard Chan School to learn technical skills and policy ideas to help her build her company, and reveled in the opportunities offered during her fall semester on campus. She attended the School’s Nutrition and Global Health Symposium, and went on a trip to Washington, D.C., organized by the School’s Office of Career Advancement to visit public health organizations and meet with Harvard Chan School graduates.

She called what she’s learned about nutrition at the School “an eye-opener. It’s not enough to just provide a service, which was what I was doing. It’s important to understand how drivers like racial discrimination, cultural beliefs, poverty, and maternal education determine food choices and preferences for families, globally”

“Latifat came to Harvard Chan with a clear-cut goal,” said Christopher Duggan, professor in the Departments of Nutrition and Global Health and Population. “She has made numerous personal sacrifices to attain her education here, and I am excited to see where her training takes her.”

Okara, who is in the MPH-65 program, will finish her coursework in the fall semester. This summer, she’s working on a practicum with the World Bank, where she will be taking a deep dive into primary health care initiatives to alleviate malnutrition in children under five living in low- and middle-income countries

One of the highlights of her experience at the School has been learning from the diverse life experiences of her fellow students, she said. “Everyone wants to make a positive impact on the world. You just can’t help but to think positively, as well.”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Kent Dayton