Out of the Desert

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When First Lady Michelle Obama visited Chicago last fall to herald the city’s efforts to eliminate food deserts – areas where affordable, healthy food is difficult to obtain – Dominican students and faculty members were already hard at work combating obesity and sowing the seeds for healthy community nutrition.

Through partnerships with institutions like the Maywood Multicultural Farmer’s Market and Chicago Head Start centers, students in the Nutrition Sciences Department are leading education and advocacy efforts to combat nutrition inequality.

Dominican students and faculty have been instrumental in leading the educational efforts of the Maywood Multicultural Farmer’s Market, an outdoor market that offers local produce on Saturdays during the summer and fall. Maywood, the struggling community that abuts River Forest’s southwest corner, has been long been considered a food desert due to its lacking a grocery store or other easily accessible venues for residents to get fresh produce.

This disparity often correlates with high rates of obesity and other health problems, because residents in food deserts are forced to rely on available unhealthy, processed or fast food, says Judy Beto ’73, PhD, department chair and professor of nutrition science.

“Being able to access the local supermarket to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables for dinner or a snack is something that a lot of us take for granted,” Beto says. “But the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of people in the Chicago area who don’t have easy access to fresh produce.”

At the market, students provided nutrition education, handed out cookbooks, and assembled and distributed healthy, ready-to-prepare meals in an effort to help residents utilize the nutritional resources available to them.

But access to nutritious options alone does not translate into adoption of healthy habits. In fact, area nutrition advocates lauded as an oasis the Maywood Market, a full-service grocery store that opened in the town’s center in 2010, only to see the store close its doors just over a year later due to lack of business.

“Unfortunately, habits are hard to break. People have shopping habits that have been around for a long time, and despite all of our hopes, we haven’t seen the amazing leaps we’d hoped to in the number of people using all of the resources in their community,” Beto says.

In Assistant Professor Jill White’s Community Nutrition class, students learn not just about the scientific principles of healthy nutrition, but also about the cultural, economic and political factors that impact community health issues such as obesity and food access.

“The main thing we want students to take away from the class is cultural competency,” White says. “Historically, dietitians have been ineffective at combating obesity, and it’s mostly due to a lack of awareness of the cultural factors that lead to it.”

Dominican has taken the lead nationally on integrating diversity into both the nutrition curriculum and the dietetics profession. Angela Dougé, coordinator of dietetics supervised practice, recently was named one of four national Diversity Leaders by the American Dietetic Association tasked with increasing representation of minority groups in the profession. The department also recently received a $229,000 grant from the USDA to create a coordinated undergraduate program that will help Hispanic students break through barriers to become registered dietitians.

“There’s a lot of inequality regarding access to good food, education and health care. We call it the hunger-obesity paradox,” White says. “Many people only have access to poorer quality foods. As the Western diet, fast food and mass food production spread across the world so do higher rates of obesity and diabetes.”

In class, students learn approaches to help people adopt healthy nutrition in the context of socioeconomic situations, as well as completing outside projects, working with organizations such as Head Start centers, high schools and community clinics. A recent unit on nutrition advocacy yielded a bill introduced by Congressman Danny Davis to require all schools to have a dietitian available for consultation, just as all are required to employ a nurse.

“The real-world experience helps us understand how difficult it is to really feed a family today or even feed yourself without relying on the least-healthy options,” says Danielle Miller ’11, a nutrition and dietetics major who plans on attending graduate school for social work.

“It is very important for medical professionals in the nutrition field to be culturally knowledgeable and generally sensitive to the varying needs and values of those they work with,” says dietetics student Maya Chatburn. “My experience at Dominican has pushed me to think twice about the impact of financial and social inequality on basic nutritional needs of those around me.”

Thanks to the efforts of national figures such as the First Lady and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the issues are gaining attention. Positive efforts such as planting community gardens and remodeling neighborhood drug stores to offer fresh produce are underway.

Getting that food onto family dinner tables will require much more grassroots education, but White is confident that the passion growing in students will sustain the movement.

“People are interested in nutrition from different perspectives – health, environmental, economic. The undergraduate programs are swelling,” White said. “It’s really an issue of justice and humanity, and our students are responding to that.”

Judy Beto ’73, PhD

When Judy Beto, PhD ’73, department chair and professor of nutrition science, compares her time as a student at Rosary College in the 1970s with the experiences of students in Dominican’s nutrition science programs today, some similarities are clear. The 53-year tradition of the Recipe Box Café is still filling the stomachs and minds of the Dominican community. The curriculum emphasizes teamwork and skill, and professors still stress nutrition as a medium for compassion and service.

Since Beto joined the Dominican faculty in 1990, she’s also seen many positive changes, including increasing academic recognition, expanding the department’s program offerings, encouraging diversity in the dietetics field and transitioning the department to its new five-star kitchen facilities in the Christopher Nutrition Science Center.

Beto, the founder and first editor of the Journal of Renal Nutrition, received the Joel D. Kopple Award, the highest award given to dietitians by the National Kidney Foundation. She also was the driving force behind efforts to increase representation of minority populations and men in the field of dietetics, for which the university was presented with the 2003 American Dietetic Association Diversity Action Award.

“One of our goals has to become more culturally and community-oriented,” Beto says.

Among her efforts have been hosting citywide conferences with workshops on nutrition-related concerns in communities of color and pioneering a program for Chicago public high school students that gives them the opportunity to work alongside nutrition students and professors in the Recipe Box Café. Students from local high schools, many of whom have had little or no exposure to a college campus, are invited to visit Dominican each year.

She also led outreach to area culinary schools and community colleges to help minority students transfer seamlessly into bachelor’s degree programs at Dominican. The university is the only in the state and one of just a handful in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in Culinology®, which merges culinary training and food science to prepare graduates for work as chefs, researchers and test-kitchen professionals. The department has also added a dual MBA/RD (registered dietitian) program in conjunction with the Brennan School of Business – the country’s only such dual degree.

When Beto retires after the 2011-2012 school year, she will leave behind an impressive legacy, but she is confident that the department will continue to grow.

“What’s really exciting,” Beto says, “is that whoever takes over will inherit both a wonderful foundation to work from and a wonderful tradition to take in new directions.”