The Irishwoman working to ensure children get the food they need worldwide
‘Well-nourished children are better able to grow, learn and contribute to their communities’
Breda Gavin-Smith with her husband Alistair Smith and their children (from left) Iris Smith and Ada Smith
Breda Gavin-Smith is a global public health nutrition manager for the Sight and Life Foundation in Basel in Switzerland, a humanitarian nutrition think tank delivering innovative solutions to eliminate all forms of malnutrition in children and women of childbearing age, and improve the lives of children all over the world. Originally from Galway, she lives with her family in Zurich.
When did you leave Ireland?
I left for Singapore in February 2007. I was newly married, and my husband and I had the opportunity to work in South East Asia and further develop our global careers while also enabling us to continue our passion for travel.
Where did you study?
I studied in the North of Ireland, qualifying as a dietitian in 1999. I completed my Master’s in Public Health from the University of Liverpool. I started my Master’s in Singapore and completed my thesis in Geneva at the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN).
Tell us about your career in Switzerland.
We moved with our seven-month-old daughter, Ada, to Geneva in 2010. I initially engaged with the UNSCN on my thesis, which looked at private sector engagement within the UN nutrition sector. This led to a role with the UN Scaling Up Nutrition Movement in Geneva. This is a 60-countries led global movement to end malnutrition in all its forms. It is a very unique, complex movement and my role was supporting engagement across all sectors-from civil society, the United Nations, donors, businesses and researchers in a collective effort to improve nutrition.
While I loved this role, politics often interfered with the real agenda of ending malnutrition and so I wanted to move back into a more nutrition research role where I would have the opportunity to work more closely with projects on the ground. I joined the Nutrition think thank Sight and Life, which is based in Basel Switzerland, two years ago as the Global Public Health Nutrition Manager. My work is mainly around designing and implementing nutrition interventions aimed at women and children and policy and advocacy work ensuring science - based decision-making in nutrition. Often the headlines we hear about nutrition and health are not based in science, and this can have consequences for the most vulnerable.
We know good nutrition is the bedrock of child survival, health and development
What does your day-to-day work involve?
No day is the same, which is why I love my job! The day to day also very much depends on whether I am travelling, in the office or working from home. I travel about 30 per cent of the time - mainly to Africa and sometimes Asia, where our projects are based. There is also travel to scientific events and conferences, which is important to keep updated on the latest nutritional research as it is always changing and we can also share the work we are doing. As a Foundation we depend on donors for our funding and so it is always important we show impact in our work, but also that we share our success stories to ensure we can scale-up our projects on the ground and reach more women and children.
When not travelling, I mainly work from home, which is now Zurich. This involves calls with my teams here dealing with implementation issues, or the global team managing operational management concerns. A lot of time is taken up with writing papers/articles on our work or grant applications. Meetings and discussions with potential donors on new innovations we want to engage with is also a big part of my work and I really enjoy this as many large UN agencies or organisations including large multinational companies are reluctant to engage in new innovations in nutrition, but as a nutrition think tank this is essential. We have had some fantastic success in working with small to local food companies in Ghana, for example, supporting them to develop more affordable nutritious foods.
You work in public health and are particularly focused on children. What does that involve?
My work is many based in low and middle income countries where child survival is often precarious, every year, around three million children die due to undernutrition. We know good nutrition is the bedrock of child survival, health and development. Well-nourished children are better able to grow and learn, to participate in and contribute to their communities, and to be resilient in the face of disease, disasters, and other global crises.
Our projects and programmes predominantly focus on the first 1,000 days from the start of a woman’s pregnancy to a child’s second birthday as this offers an extraordinary window of opportunity for preventing undernutrition and its consequences. Areas such as appropriate complementary foods for infants over six months and micronutrient supplementation for women and children to address deficiencies are areas we focus on. Investments in nutrition in the earliest years of life can yield dramatic results for children, their families, and communities.
You have children. Growing up in Switzerland do they speak more than one language? Do they eat their greens?
One great advantage my daughters have in Switzerland is their exposure to different cultures and languages. They speak fluent French, English and are getting there with German. We moved to Zurich from Geneva five months ago and almost everyone in their class has one parent who is non-Swiss. We get to celebrate all the different traditions of Switzerland as well as other countries as we have Italian, American, English, Swedish, French and Russian neighbours.
We love the outdoors and Switzerland is a perfect place to explore our passion for hiking and cycling. In the summer the girls get to hike in the Alps, sleep in huts and swim in the lake while skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
What are the opportunities like for your chosen career in Ireland?
I started my career in Dublin but always wanted to work abroad and experience working in different cultures. That path has led me down a global nutrition route, with a development focus. Switzerland is the HQ for the WHO and many UN agencies and this has opened up more global nutrition opportunities that are more difficult to find in Ireland. It would be difficult to now look at health without a global lens based on what I have seen and worked on over the past 10 years. Global nutrition is a small pool in Ireland with limited opportunities.
How do salaries compare?
Swiss salaries are generally higher than in other European countries and there are very favourable tax rates, however the cost of living is also high. My family balk at the price of goods here but it is relative to what people earn.
Do the Irish fit in well there?
I think the Irish fit in well everywhere and we are very good at finding our fellow patriots! There is defiantly a tendency, due to language, to make other English-speaking friends. Most of our friends here are English, Irish or American.
Children in Switzerland walk to school with their friends. Driving to school is frowned upon
What is it like living in Switzerland?
It’s a great place to live and work, particularly if you are an outdoor enthusiast. It’s easy to see why the Swiss population has the fourth-lowest obesity rate in the OECD countries. Zurich is often rated in the top three of best cities for expats to live in. There is a huge choice of winter and summer sports in Switzerland, including, hiking, canoeing, mountaineering, cycling and mountain biking. We live close to the city but have hiking trails five minutes from where we live and within an hour you can be in the Alps. We really enjoy local festivals. Zurich goes all out with national days: Sechseläuten marks the start of summer with a giant exploding snowman in the centre of town and winter begins with the beautiful Räbeleichti - where kids parade with candles in carved-out turnips. It’s also true that there are lots of rules when living in Switzerland, but they’re mostly sensible and if you follow said rules, you’re pretty much left alone to live your life your own way. The people are generally reserved but also very keen for you to have a good experience when living here and really aim to give you a high standard of service or support when you need it. We have especially found this with the education system. Our daughters have received so much help and support form their teachers to help them integrate in school and the quality of the education is really fantastic.
What is it like living there in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on? What are the costs like compared to Ireland?
Most people in Zurich, 80 per cent in fact, live in apartments which was a big change from having our own house outside Geneva previously. But apartments are built with families in mind and are quite large and generally have great facilities. Public transport is great and we rarely use our car in Zurich apart from weekend trips away. The other big difference is children’s independence. Children in Switzerland walk to school with their friends. Driving to school is frowned upon and it is rare to even see parents walking their children to school. They see this as an important part of developing a child’s independence. Our children now get to school or their activities by walking or on public transport.
Social life is very different to Ireland. People often socialise at home or you bump into families having a fire in designated fire pits, which are available in most forests in Switzerland. There is a strong café rather than pub culture here and a very foodie scene in Zurich, which is great and offers not only the traditional Swiss food that people think about such as raclette or fondue, but very international cafes and restaurants. Brunch is all very big in Zurich and most Sundays that’s where you will find many local Swiss and international communities socialising.
What do you think your future holds?
My husband and I both love our jobs and our daughters like their school and have good friends here, so based on their age we plan to stay here and see them through primary and secondary education. After that who knows, we would defiantly like to be able to spend more time in Ireland.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
I miss everything about Ireland, but especially my family and friends. We are a close-knit group so we try and see each other regularly, but it’s not the same as dropping in for a cup of tea. It’s actually got harder as my daughters have grown older as they really miss their cousins and are very close to them. They love their trips to Galway and are totally spoilt when they get there!
I also desperately miss the atmosphere of a good Irish pub where you can just start up a conversation with a stranger, it sounds clichéd, but it is very true. I also miss the deserted beaches and wild Atlantic winds you get on beautiful Connemara beaches and it’s our first stop when we come home. I have managed to find a delivery service for Barry’s tea and Ballymaloe which brings a slice of home to Switzerland.