Securing food and water

“You’re the researcher. You tell us.”

Those few words set anthropology professor Sera Young on a course toward ending food and water insecurity worldwide.

While studying maternal anemia in Zanzibar in 2006, Young spoke with pregnant women to learn about their dietary habits. It was during these discussions that one woman, sitting on the floor of her home, removed a chunk of clay from the wall and ate it.

Young would learn that this was a relatively common behavior in Zanzibar: pregnant women craved clay, dirt, sand and other non-food substances, and they ate them, sometimes multiple times a day.

When Young asked people in the village why women were doing this, the wife of a traditional healer pushed Young to answer that question herself.

“She gave me my first job,” Young says of the healer’s wife.

Young spent years researching pica, a condition in which people crave and consume non-food substances. Pica, Young would find, is not relegated to pregnant women or developing countries — it’s much more widespread.

“In the U.S., you can buy clay online and have it delivered discreetly to your house,” Young says. “Graveyard dirt is used in certain voodoo potions. There’s a grotto in Bethlehem where supposedly a drop of the virgin Mary’s milk spilled, and some people believe that if you eat that earth, your milk supply will increase and your fertility will improve.”

Beyond the religious or superstitious, Young says eating clay might act as an anti-diarrheal, thereby preventing deaths from contaminated water or food.

Young went on to write a book about pica, called "Craving Earth," which won the 2013 Margaret Mead Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology and the American Anthropological Association.

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