My name is Carolina Mejía Toro. I am Colombian. Being in permanent armed conflict since 1960, Colombia is currently the most unequal country in Latin America, where malnutrition, food insecurity, impaired access to education, and forced displacement are widespread. Ever since high school, I have been eager to understand the roots of these issues, dreaming that one day I could contribute to bringing upon solutions.
One of the understandings that move me to the bone is that even if domestic and international law formally recognize every human as equal, and even when individuals might try their best effort to overcome poverty or hardship, for many, the disadvantage is determined before birth. Pregnancy and early-childhood malnutrition -which are more prevalent in poor households-, can impede normal brain development, thus hindering learning outcomes, increasing the risk of school dropout, chronic diseases, labor absence, and reducing opportunities for stable labor and human development for a lifetime. Furthermore, malnourished and poor families are at high risk of engendering malnourished children, therefrom reinforcing a vicious cycle.
Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations. – Brené Brown.
I came to the realization that we, humans, do nothing to deserve the place, context, and family where we are born, so what we achieve in life is in big part not only due to our efforts and discipline but due to circumstances out of merit. In line with these realizations, since my adolescence, I started dreaming of becoming a leader who could formulate solutions to reach substantive equality. In my last year of high school, I got a scholarship to study political sciences and governance at a prestigious university in Bogotá. I studied there for a year with excellent academic results but I suffered from profound distress because my family was undergoing bankruptcy. During that time of hardship, culinary became a source of inspiration and de-stress. I ended up leaving the bachelor in politics, going back to my home city to and studying culinary arts -again through a scholarship.
During my culinary studies, I joined a research group in functional healthy foods, which made me fall in love with nutrition and food science, so I pursued a Bachelor of Sciences in Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutrition paved the way to meld my early zeal for humanities and governance with my passion for food science and health, through the field of food security, the rights to food, health, education, and cross-cutting rights converge. The final thesis opened the gates to my first job in a joint project of the World Food Programme and the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare. I worked for more than five years in the food industry and in governmental food security programs. Although I liked the jobs, I often found myself frustrated by observing how outdated policies and widespread corruption hampered the efficiency of the programmes. Day after day, I developed the ambition to be a project developer, not only an implementer. This desire prompted me to engage in the MA Human Rights and Multi-level Governance because I wanted to acquire the proper tools as well as a sound understanding of the intersectional rights to the right to food.
I envisaged that studying in Italy could have given me the possibility to do an internship at the World Food Programme or at FAO, but I was wrong because I was rejected due to my age -these agencies only admit interns under 30 years old. The denial broke my heart, but it did not stop me: I kept looking for internship opportunities and, after five months, I found Sapient, an Amsterdam-based organization that works for the advancement of the SDGs. I applied and I was selected for working on the project “Healthy and Affordable” which aims at fostering food access, health, and sustainability by reducing food waste. The internship unleashed a process of multidimensional personal and professional growth. Although I recognized that the baseline idea of the project is brilliant, in the beginning, I noticed it was lacking in food safety and quality control standards. Initially, I was terrified by a deserted Amsterdam, with the 9:00 pm curfew, and the restriction not to host more than one guest. I was afraid not to find friends, a comfortable place where to live, and a part-time job to help my family cope with an acute economic calamity that re-aroused due to the COVID-19 global crisis.
Yet, notwithstanding my fears, the experience turned out to be amazing: I took the project as a professional challenge and I ideated and enforced an ad-hoc protocol. I openly talked about my concerns and proposals with the co-workers, and they all welcomed and backed the idea; it did not even take us a week to start implementing improvements. I have to say that Sapient is a truly democratic organization: our remarks were heard, voted, and taken into account. Meanwhile, I made friends both through the accommodation research -initially, I used Couch-surfing-, and through colleagues. The best part of the experience has been centred upon people: I met sharp-minded, whole-hearted, courageous, inspiring persons almost on a daily basis. In less than a month, I got surrounded by a ‘family’ of multicultural friends, who inspired me to engage in youth leadership projects and in a health project in Africa.
It took me persistence and patience to find a source of income, as I do not have a Dutch residence permit, nor a European passport. When I finally got an opportunity as a babysitter for a Hindi family living in the periphery of Amsterdam, I needed almost an hour by bike to reach their house every morning, and then to go back to the office in the afternoons. For a while, I thought about quitting the job: apart from the distance, the strong wind often blended with rain made biking extremely hard. However, the founder and colleagues at Sapient helped me arrange my timetables so as to keep both the internship and the job. The leg-pain decreased, I became a faster rider and I started hearing audiobooks and podcasts while biking: commuting is now my favourite moment of the agenda. Moreover, the intercultural exchange with the family is rousing and we become affectionate. I am profoundly grateful for the whole package! This is for me the practical realization of my conviction that brave is not the one who is fearless, but that one who shows up despite the fears.
Written by Carolina Mejía Toro
Edited by Giulia Rosina
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Carolina Mejía Toro is a second-year human rights student, passionate about nutrition issues, the right to food, food justice and food education. Follow Carolina's story on Instagram @caromto, Facebook @Carolina Mejía and Linkedin @Carolina Mejía Toro.
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