Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2020

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Social Work

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



In order to explore the psychosocial and agroecological dimensions of sustainable diets and their roles in the rural Andean community of Caliata in the Ecuadorian highlands, I conducted a community-centered participatory mixed-methods study. Thirty-nine focus groups and ten key informant interviews were conducted, recorded, translated, transcribed, and analyzed using three-stage coding. The information was triangulated using participant observation, local records, and descriptive statistics from a survey of 57 female household heads, which included a modified 48-hour dietary recall module. Rural appraisal research assessed agroecological dimensions. Ten purposively selected sites were studied alongside local informants in order to obtain diversity indexes and a subset of five sites were analyzed for agroecological parameters using MO-DIRT protocols for soil health and laboratory analysis. A crossover analysis was conducted for agrobiodiversity, parcel size, and dietary diversity using the NOVA food classification to categorize the diet according to levels of processing. Four community-based system dynamics sessions were carried out to elucidate cause-effect relationships.

Caliata has experienced processes of acculturation and the effects of poverty. While gendered agriculture and population aging represent demographic challenges that are directly associated to outmigration. Modern agriculture, based in extensive monocultures and mechanized plowing, represents a potential alternative to labor shortages and to earn additional income. But this form of agriculture represents a threat to Caliata’s traditional landscape. Moreover, Caliata to date has managed to retain its identity, culture, language, and agroecological space, including native crops and a system of knowledge. Hence, people in Caliata refer to themselves as Kichwa-Puruwá indigenous people.

The results of this study reveal a psychosocial dimension defined by a heterarchical mode of organization and government that is reinforced by indigeneity and customary institutions. Heterarchy in Caliata is expressed by distributed and shared intelligence through a diversity of organizational units with specialized functions, which are in constant negotiation in order to reach consensus and procure optimal responses to collective decisions in the face of uncertainty and limited resources. Identity is grounded in a cosmovision that defines a relationship with Mother Nature (Pachamama). Customary institutions reinforce trust and reciprocity and are key to mobilize labor-intensive tasks. An agroecological dimension is characterized by a pre-Columbian system of terraces, ditches, and contention walls, as well as ecological richness and evenness that are managed with ancestral ecological knowledge. Their knowledge includes agrarian calendars that follow natural cycles, pest control, seed selection, and soil restoration measures, which complement the terracing system that creates heterogeneity and acts as energy traps of sunlight, water, and nutrients.

The combined analysis of both dimensions reveal that the community represents a case of positive deviance in that it is a space where sustainable diets are viable and food sovereignty provides an ecocentric way of living based on production, exchange, consumption of local produce, and knowledge of how Pachamama should be treated. In this sense, consistency was found in dietary patterns; all respondents reported intelligent hydration strategies as well as strategies to balance intakes with energy requirements, fruits being the most popular snack. Additionally, two-thirds of households consume unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Meanwhile, chronic health problems remain relatively infrequent compared to the general population.

In conclusion, this study suggests the sustainability of a reinforced loop in Andean agri-food systems, in which sustainable diets support a stable agroecological space and where the dynamic interaction between psychosocial and agroecological factors assure food security. Thus, Caliata provides insights that can be scaled-up from a local experience to programs and policy aligned to planetary health, thereby representing an opportunity to elucidate ideas for sustainability and food security challenges.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Lora L. Iannotti

Committee Members

Bret Gustafson, David Patterson Silver Wolf, Anne Sebert-Kuhlmann, Joe Steensma,

Available for download on Thursday, August 11, 2022