At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020, many Rhode Islanders were struck by food insecurity. As a Hassenfeld Summer Scholar at that time, Kelsey Bala worked with the Hassenfeld Institute to develop resources to help families in Rhode Island find nutritious food.
“The RI Community Food Bank reported that they had ramped up distribution by 40 percent, so I thought people needed an online resource to identify places where they could get healthy food for their families,” Bala said.
Working with the Institute's Data Core team, Bala scoured the internet to find the hours of operation and addresses for all of the state’s WIC offices and other resources for healthy food. This updated information then was put into a GIS system to create a map of all the locations. Bala also worked on updating the Hassenfeld Institute’s website to include links to the websites for the RI Food Bank, as well as other food distributors, the WIC offices, farmers markets and more.
"I was particularly focused on perinatal nutritional health," Bala said.
Bala had actually begun this project as a student in Maternal and Child Health in the United States, a class taught by the Hassenfeld Institute’s director, Dr. Patrick Vivier. So when she was accepted as a scholar, she was eager to resume her work.
“I worked primarily with Dr. Vivier, and what I loved is that he gave the scholars the freedom to really own our projects,” Bala said.
Bala, who is a native Rhode Islander, always wanted to be a pediatrician. She taught Sunday school classes and loved interacting with kids. But in her second year of undergrad at Gordon College, her perspective on children's health broadened.
“Once I started doing internships in doctors’ offices, I noticed that there was a huge focus on treatment, rather than prevention. I felt like there was more I could be doing to help kids before they get sick,” Bala said.
That’s how Bala became interested in public health and, in particular, the prevention of illness and disease before children are even born, starting with their parents.
“A lot of children’s health issues stem from the moms’ health, and the dads’ health, too,” she said.
In fact, Bala’s master's thesis this past spring focused on how adversities in childhood can make an impact on adult health down the road, particularly when a person becomes pregnant. Bala said the idea was inspired by a seminar hosted by the Hassenfeld Institute that focused on preparing children for kindergarten.
“Some children aren’t enrolled in high-quality preschool programs before entering kindergarten, so then they enter kindergarten at a disadvantage compared to their peers who did attend preschool,” she said. “My question is, ‘Can we leverage well-child visits to the doctor to help these kids before they enter kindergarten?’”
Although the summer scholars program was remote last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Bala said it went smoothly thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of her mentors, especially Dr. Vivier.
“Dr. Vivier is so passionate, which makes you even more excited about the work,” she said.
Bala graduated in May from Brown's MPH program and plans to take a “solid mental health break” to decompress from the stress of the pandemic before looking for jobs in her field.
“I really want to be an advocate for kids,” Bala said.