Self-Help International Board Member Named Heartland Global Health Advocate Award Winner

Mary Jane Oakland holds an infant in rural Ghana

The Rev. Dr. Mary Jane Oakland of Ames has been named the inaugural recipient of the Heartland Global Health Advocate Award for her heartfelt service to improve the lives of people in Iowa, Ghana, Nicaragua, China, Pakistan, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

The award recognizes an Iowa-based global health researcher, practitioner, and/or advocate who has made a significant impact on global health research, practice or policy during his or her career. It is presented by the Heartland Global Health Consortium.

Oakland was nominated by colleagues who have worked with her to build capacity among global health practitioners and improve the lives of the most vulnerable around the world. The award ceremony honoring Oakland will take place during the Heartland Global Health Consortium Annual Conference on Friday, Nov. 15, at a luncheon from 12:15-1:15 pm in the Sullivan Center Room 102, Mercy College of Health Sciences at 928 6th Ave. in Des Moines, IA.

Oakland has served on Self-Help International’s Board of Directors since 2005, working to advance human nutrition for programs serving rural communities in Nicaragua in Central America and in Ghana in West Africa. She designed and actively monitors implementation of Self-Help International’s “Growing Healthy Food, Growing Healthy Children” intervention which combines agriculture and women’s empowerment with nutrition education and support to prevent stunting in the first 1,000 days of life for more than 150 babies living in rural villages in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. More than one in three children born in the villages suffers from stunting by the age of five and every expectant and new mother in the villages was food insecure. Self-Help International’s nutritional intervention designed by Oakland has more than doubled the number of mothers who practice exclusive breastfeeding of their children until they are six months old, an increase from 39% to 85%, and has halved the rates of malnutrition among children who were born into the intervention. Children are now getting regular vaccinations and healthcare and their mothers are learning how to incorporate nutrient-rich foods into their regular diets, as well as how to increase household income.

Mary Jane Oakland counsels mother in Beposo, Ghana

Mary Jane Oakland counsels a new mom in Beposo

“Not only does Dr. Oakland do the research to help create best practices, but she puts it into action, both for Iowans and our global neighbors,” wrote nominator Nora Tobin, Executive Director of Self-Help International. “Her leadership and dedication means hundreds of infants in Ghana have the nutrition needed for proper brain development so they can learn and earn long-term. With family medical crises and church commitments, it would have been easier to stay in the comfort of her home, away from the cramped planes, bumpy roads, and long nights pouring over the data; but over and over, she says yes, and the world is better for it.”

Prof. Matina Zia, Dean of the Food and Nutrition Department at the University of Home Economics in Lahore, Pakistan, nominated Dr. Oakland for her compassion, her efforts to help people in need without any hesitation, and for her courage, determination, and commitment to complete the job she undertakes. The two professors met in August 1998 when Prof. Zia visited Iowa State University through the faculty exchange program. There was no formal training program for dietitians in Pakistan at the time, so the two women worked together to develop the courses to launch Pakistan’s first dietetics program.

Dr. Oakland flew to Lahore, Pakistan, in late October 1999 just two weeks after the military coup. Zia recalls, “There was a travel advisory for Pakistan. Dr. Oakland braved the journey to visit us in Pakistan and stayed in Lahore for six weeks training our first batch of students and teachers in hospitals. During her stay, she visited urban and rural slums around Lahore and met with non-governmental organization workers, giving them valuable suggestions. She talked with hospital administrators and doctors to emphasize the importance of building the dietetics program. She visited again to follow up the program in the end of 2001 just after 9/11 with subsequent visits in 2005 and 2011. She continues to help us with running the program. Without her help it would not have been possible. Now dietitians are being trained all over Pakistan and our dietitians are working in hospitals and communities and contributing in improving the health of people.” Her husband and children joke that she doesn’t like to travel if there isn’t a state department warning against it.

Oakland spent her career as a nutrition and dietetics faculty member of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University from 1979 to 2006. She supervised the ISU dietetics program – including teaching, advising, managing accreditation, and keeping a capable faculty. Nominators also cited Dr. Oakland’s contributions domestically, including helping to shepherd the state licensing of dietitians in Iowa through the legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad’s office. Dr. Oakland held license #001. She has served many communities in Iowa through her research on community nutrition including WIC (Women Infants, & Children) and on food deserts in Iowa.

Oakland is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church and most recently served at St. Paul’s in Marshalltown before retiring in 2015. In 2008 she made her first trip to Swaziland where the Anglican Church is a companion of the Episcopal Church of Iowa. At that time, she saw the significant malnutrition of children—primarily as a result of the devastation of AIDS in that country. She returned in 2011 to run workshops for the volunteers at the church-sponsored neighborhood feeding programs that serve primarily AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children. In 2012, she was able to revisit some of those programs. She and her husband, David Oakland, spent two months in Swaziland in 2016 working with the Diocese of Swaziland to develop more sustainable plans for continuing the feeding programs.


About Self-Help International

Founded in Waverly, Iowa in 1959, Self-Help International is a nonprofit dedicated to alleviating hunger and poverty by helping people help themselves. Self-Help commits to working with rural communities to improve agriculture, nutrition, and health, and foster economic opportunities until families are able to stand on their own and achieve self-sufficiency. Self-Help follows the philosophy of “teaching people to fish” so they can eat for a lifetime. Self-Help’s current commitments are in Nicaragua, Central America and Ghana, West Africa. More information is available at

Read more about the Growing Healthy Food, Growing Healthy Children program that Dr. Oakland advises at

About the Heartland Global Health Consortium

The Heartland Global Health Consortium is a group of Iowa colleges and universities that have come together around a common interest of global health research and practice. The consortium was established in 2007 with the underlying assumption that global learning experiences for students and faculty benefit Iowa and our country in the areas of economics, civic engagement and improvement of health outcomes. Members of the consortium agree that to accomplish this in the most efficient manner requires collaboration and sharing of resources. To accomplish these goals, the consortium focuses on partnerships with other countries, collaborative research, and educational programming.

The Heartland Global Health Consortium hosts an annual conference to establish a meaningful dialogue among health professionals, educators, and researchers by focusing on health access. The conference examines rights, risks and barriers to healthcare and public health resources, and explore the impact on global health. Participants examine best practices, evidence-based research, advocacy efforts, and strategies for addressing barriers faced by health professions. Learn more at