Five Ways Dietitians Can AgVocate

Thursday, March 23, 2017
By: Cara Harbstreet, Owner at Street Smart Nutrition, Registered Dietitian
National Nutrition Month - March 2017

This feature is part of a series of blog posts spotlighting the unique members of the AgVocate Facebook community for their efforts to educate, share and help bridge the gap between consumers and the agriculture community. This National Nutrition Month, we are happy to highlight Cara Harbstreet, Registered Dietitian and author of the Street Smart Nutrition blog.


To many people, the agriculture world and the nutrition world might seem distantly related. But for me, there’s always been a deep connection between the two. My passion for health through diet and lifestyle was discovered when I took an elective course my sophomore year. The course: World Food and Agriculture. The result: a swift change to declare a new major in dietetics and nutrition. I consider dietetics to be among the fields that can bridge the gap between consumers and the food they eat. It’s one of the many reasons I love my job!


As dietitians, we focus on what happens to food once it enters the body. We know the ins and outs of digestion, absorption, and utilization of nutrients. We can manage complex diseases and chronic conditions through diet and lifestyle. And we can coach and support our patients to make meaningful, lasting changes to their lifestyle.


But what we may not be as well versed in is our understanding of the food system. Our patients and clients turn to us for answers - we all have the same desire to feed our families well. It’s important for dietitians to not only understand and use science-based information, but also to dispel myths and put these families at ease. Our job is to provide information so they feel empowered to make food choices that are right for them.


Here are just a few ways to get started on a path towards being an advocate for agriculture. Soon, you may be able to claim the title of Ag-vocate, too!


1. Visit a Farm or Talk to a Farmer


Now, this might seem obvious, but it’s easier said than done. Farmers now make up less than 2% of the total population. If you live in an urban or suburban area, tracking one down might prove to be difficult. Technology is making this easier, though, and there are many organizations that can assist in connecting you with a farmer or producer. Whether you want to learn about small-scale, large-scale, conventional, organic, urban agriculture, or any other variety of food production, there is someone doing it somewhere and you can connect with them.


Here are two great resources to get you started:


  1. Find Our Common Ground
  2. Ask The Farmers

But don’t stop there - talk to more. One farm or one farmer doesn’t represent the entire spectrum of agriculture, just like one dietitian isn’t reflective of the profession as a whole. Seek to find different practices or opposing opinions and you’ll find your foundation of knowledge expands rapidly. 


2. Do Your Homework


The learning doesn’t end for dietitians after graduation. Every 5 years, there is a minimum of 75 continuing professional education units (CPEUs) required to maintain our credential. Invest those hours in a way that actually furthers your knowledge, rather than simply jumping through the hoops.

Many local events can apply for approval of CPEUs. State or local affiliates of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) or Dietetic Practice Groups (DPGs) can partner with farmers or agriculture organizations. Try hosting or attending an event with guest speakers or a panel of experts that connects people around the table with a good meal. Look for farm tours in your area or virtual events broadcasting from other states or regions. There are also many options online, including webinars or self-study modules. This is your chance to explore new topics. If you feel like your formal education or dietitian training was lacking in this department, make up it with your CPEUs!


3. Get Connected


We tend to settle into our tribe, meaning we stay closely connected to those who are similar to us. Similar job, similar beliefs, similar lifestyle. I would encourage dietitians to branch out beyond our profession and connect with other tribes. Social media has become a wonderful tool for this. Find a new hashtag or join a new group. Maintain an open mind for dialogue and discussion, rather than debates or arguments. You never know, these conversations with new connections might open doors for opportunities you never envisioned before.


4. Stand for Science, and Stand up for Yourself


Dietitians are held to ethical standards and must follow evidence-based guidelines in our practice. It’s important to know and understand the current body of evidence for research in food, agriculture, nutrition, and health. There is a time and a place for opinions, but we have a responsibility to do our best not to sway our clients towards our bias or refute or ignore evidence on a controversial subject.


I also encourage dietitians to have the confidence to stand up for themselves when they are questioned. It’s easy to shrink into the shadows when we feel we might be wrong. And it can feel intimidating to be questioned by others, especially if we don’t feel like the expert (like in the case of agriculture). But if you come armed with resources, science, and the reasoning to support your statements, you can open the floor for a lively dialogue without fear of confrontation.


If you’d like to learn more but aren’t sure where to start, these resources are a few I rely on when I have questions:


  1. Best Food Facts
  2. Ask The Farmers
  3. Food Insight

5. Think for Yourself


Finally, one of the best ways a dietitian can ag-vocate is to apply critical thinking and problem solving into everyday life. Yes, it is easier to accept the status quo or brush it off as “just the way things are.” But taking a critical stance to question “Why?” allows us to see and (start to) understand. Every farm is different - thus, they have different needs. We apply logic to many aspects of life and find ways to work more efficiently, maximize output, or otherwise make life easier for ourselves. Agriculture is no different. Reaching out to farmers or other resources is one way to learn how these innovations serve them and create an impact on the food system.


Being an ag-vocate does not mean you’ve “sold out” or been “paid off” to promote something. And it’s ok if you learn more and still don’t support certain practices or have your doubts. But learning more about the food system is something that can help us become better practitioners and provide a benefit for the families we are passionate about serving. What’s not to love about that?


Cara Harbstreet is a wellness dietitian working in private practice in Kansas City. She enjoys running, reading, cooking, and eating, as well as volunteering with her state and local dietetic associations. Learn more on her blog: www.street-smartnutrition.com.


Join the AgVocate Facebook Group and be a part of a like-minded community advocating for modern agriculture. Use #AgVocate on Twitter & Instagram to tell us why you AgVocate!


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