MSU Extension educator wins prestigious award to launch breastfeeding and infant care project in Egypt

Ghaida Batarseh Havern, a maternal, infant and early childhood health educator at Michigan State University Extension, was chosen as a 2024 CANR Global Scholar to launch an innovative project.

Ghaida Batarseh Havern.

When she began her career at Michigan State University Extension, educator Ghaida Batarseh Havern hoped to build on “a love of public health and nutrition” and make a difference in the lives of Michiganders.

And while she may not have known it then, in no time, she would be well on her way to changing lives for people all across the world.

Havern was recently chosen alongside three other people as a 2024 Global Scholar by the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR). CANR launched this prestigious program four years ago in order to support early and mid-career faculty members in international programs. Scholars submit proposals for international.

“I was really surprised when I found out they chose my project,” she said. “A lot of people said that this was such a unique project, so that made me really excited to work on it.”

As a CANR Global Scholar, she will receive $10,000 to launch her vision to develop a suite of food safety and breastfeeding educational programming and resources, specifically tailored for parents and caregivers in communities throughout Egypt.

As part of this project, Havern intends to develop educational resources — in Arabic and English — about the importance of food safety for infants, general food safety best practices (with a focus on pregnant parents), proper handling and storage of formula and breastmilk, and safely making homemade baby food. Her project will combine in-person education with virtual resources and outreach, and will focus on helping pregnant and breastfeeding refugees living in Egypt, of which there is currently about half a million.

Breastfeeding can be challenging in the best of circumstances, noted Havern, and people living in refugee camps abroad face unique challenges — such as clean water access, misinformation, the trauma of war and losing their homes.

Havern is currently in the research stage of her project, and will be able to utilize the funding through the end of 2025.

“Right now, I’m determining the barriers that breastfeeding parents in Egyptian communities face and looking at how best to move forward on nutrition interventions,” she said. “There are so many challenges to breastfeeding: lack of clean water, outdated information from healthcare providers, myths about breastfeeding and formula. But there are also so many possibilities.”

“The center of health”

Havern initially joined MSU Extension in 2021 as a food safety educator based in Macomb County. In this role, she taught curricula aimed to secure a safe food and water supply and prevent foodborne illness.

“Working as a food safety educator really showed me how much food safety is at the center of health,” she said. “If you don’t have safe food, you don’t have nutrition security or food access or health equity.”

One such class she taught was Safe Food = Healthy Kids, an interactive food safety workshop that teaches childcare providers how to prevent foodborne illness through cleaning and sanitizing, cooking and storing food, understanding allergens, and more.

In 2022, a nationwide infant formula shortage inspired Havern to action. She returned home from a trip and remembered seeing news stories of parents desperate to feed their children — some unknowingly resorting to unsafe measures — plastered on social media.

“I just remember seeing it everywhere and thinking, ‘What are babies going to eat?’” she said. “The shortage was affecting low-income people who struggle with access to formula anyways. And it hit me that it wasn’t just a formula shortage issue, it was a food safety issue.”

Noticing the need for educational resources tailored specifically for infant care, Havern wrote her first educational article to help parents navigating the shortage, and then launched a digital library of content called Safe Food = Healthy Babies to add more evidence-based resources for infant care.  

“This stage is the beginning of life,” she said. “It’s the beginning of a new generation. That’s why breastfeeding equity and infant nutrition security is so important. Babies can’t speak for themselves, and their parents deserve access to education and resources and support, regardless of the circumstances they’re born into.”

Understanding refugee and immigrant communities

Educator Ghaida Havern (left) and instructor Sulaiman Mansour (second from right) pose with others after delivering food safety and nutrition programming to refugees and immigrants at Zaman International, an organization that brings education and resources to women.

Aside from her expertise in food safety, Havern also spent the past couple years working alongside colleagues to deliver bundled health and nutrition programming for refugee and immigrant communities. With this approach, various nutrition and food safety education classes are combined (or “bundled”) into one convenient, comprehensive program tailored for refugee and immigrant participants. 

Havern credits these experiences with setting her up for success in her Global Scholars project.

“Working with refugees and immigrants is not a one-size-fits-all,” she said. “You have to listen, to find healthy recipes that are applicable to them and the foods they eat. You have to understand what their healthcare systems are saying. We can be more successful as educators if we take the time to understand and connect.”

For her Global Scholars project, Havern plans to draw on her experiences innovating food safety education and her deep passion for helping refugee and immigrant communities.

“I really feel like I learned how to find ways to equip people with knowledge in a culturally appropriate manner,” she said. “Who are we to come in blankly to a mother in a war-torn country and say, ‘That’s not healthy for you’? We need to understand what they’re dealing with, and what education and incentives mean the most for them.”

Making a global footprint

As Havern launches her project, she’s excited for the seemingly endless possibilities.

She is already looking at ways to leverage funds for maximum impact and create new partnerships, perhaps even with agencies like the United Nations.

“Projects like these can help strengthen our global footprint and our partnerships,” she said. “We can bring back knowledge on an international scale, and we can take our resources and knowledge to them. And really, that’s MSU Extension’s mission.”

For more stories on the dedicated health and nutrition staff who are making a difference in their communities every day, visit MSU Extension’s Success Stories webpage.

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