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RD Sprouts Sustainability-Focused Internship Program

By Hadley Turner

As businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and state and local governments work to combat climate change and engage in more environmentally friendly practices, RDs will continue to have an essential role to play in planning and maintaining sustainable food systems. To help ensure dietitians succeed in these efforts, Susie Fox, MS, RDN, has created a first-of-its-kind sustainability-focused internship program for RDs-to-be, Garden To Table Nutrition Internships.

Fox was inspired to create this internship in part because of her passion for teaching others about sustainability, but the dearth of dietetic internships was what gave her the final push into this space. When Fox earned her master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, in 2009, she watched her classmates scramble to secure their internships and decided that starting her own internship program was the best way to help RDs-to-be metamorphose into practicing dietitians.

Garden To Table offers a distance internship, so graduates can intern anywhere in the United States where opportunities are available, as opposed to being limited to sites near their alma mater. Interns, 10 of whom are accepted into each round, are responsible for finding their own preceptors where they live and are required to spend seven to 10 days with Fox and each other in Bothell, Washington (just outside Seattle), for an orientation. The orientation doubles as an on-site introduction to local food production, wherein interns work together in gardens—engaging in every step of the farm-to-table process, including composting, gathering wild herbs, gardening, and cooking—at Songaia, a cluster of sustainability-focused cohousing communities, where Fox lives. The internship can be completed full-time (usually within nine months) or part-time (within 14 months).

As a new internship program, having hosted its first class of interns in fall 2018, Garden To Table has “candidacy status” from the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics, meaning it has passed a rigorous approval process including an on-site visit and can accept and graduate interns as any fully accredited program can. Fox is eligible to apply for full accreditation in 2021, once her program has graduated a few rounds of interns who have successfully entered the job market. 

Fox’s innovation has earned her the honor of being named the 2019 Emerging Dietetic Leader by the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, meant to recognize outstanding accomplishments of RDs early in their careers. The state praised not only Fox’s unparalleled internship program but also her passionate investment in community dietetics; she creates community events for children, adults, and older adults to promote health and wellness and advocates for school district– and community-level health initiatives such as reducing sugar in school lunches and offering more plant-based options.

With the next round of interns arriving for their orientation this month, Fox is delighted to keep learning from them and growing her program. Read on to learn what moved her to start this unprecedented and ambitious program, how she manages the logistics as a solo entrepreneur, and why teaching and spreading sustainability practices is so essential to her program.

Today’s Dietitian (TD): You started out as an environmental science educator; can you tell me more about that and how you transitioned into nutrition?

Fox: I started after college doing environmental education, so I’d work at summer camps. Kids would come for a week, and we’d do outdoorsy things. Since I had a science background, I would teach science lessons based on outdoorsy things. So that was the beginning of my science. It was sort of nomadic; I’d go place to place seasonally. It’s not the kind of thing people usually do for their whole life.

One of the things I tried out was called Chefs in the Classroom. It was a SNAP-Ed [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education] program where a few schools in California were having chefs come in and bring supplies and cooking equipment, and they’d cook with the class of elementary school kids; it was fantastic. That was my start in nutrition because it was a blend of what I’d originally done as a teacher with something more nutrition based, and something more hands on. But it was a part-time, every-once-in-a-while thing. I found other jobs like that, but they had conflicting nutrition advice. The Cancer Project recommended being a vegan. The US Department of Agriculture recommended MyPlate. I was struggling with which one was right, so I decided to go to school for nutrition to find out.

TD: What inspired you to get involved with broadening dietetic internship options?

Fox: I knew a little bit about the dietetic internship process, but I didn’t know it was a possibly insurmountable hurdle. There were people who struggled for years to get into a program. I got into a distance program [but] was kind of upset with the field for creating a system where you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do but there’s just not enough internships.

At first, I became a preceptor. But being a preceptor would help in a small way; starting a program would help in a much bigger way. What I found was that there needed to be more dispersed programs, such as distance programs, or programs based farther away from big universities that take up all the placements. A distance program made that possible—students can find a clinical site if they’re willing to go wherever there’s a spot available.

TD: What are the logistics of starting up and maintaining an accredited internship program?

Fox: You need to be in business for at least five years, and you need to have an audit of your financials by an accountant, with a letter affirming that your business exists and is financially solid. The tricky thing for me was that, since my business started out as just me, I needed to have somebody for students to complain to, someone who’s above me. I have a board of advisors where students can say something about me that they don’t want to say to me. You can also hire somebody to be your contract supervisor or complaint manager.

TD: What drove your interest in sustainability and local food production?

Fox: When I went to graduate school, I was looking for a place to live and a school to attend. What I found in Washington was a school—Bastyr—to attend and a great place to live called Songaia, which is a cohousing community where people do more things together than normal. One of those things is a garden. We divide up the work into areas people are interested in. I’m good at harvesting and turning things into food, making sure we don’t waste things, such as finding a use for dandelion flowers. It makes me think, “What can I do with the weeds? What can I make pesto with besides basil? What can I do with nettles?”

TD: How do interns learn about sustainability and local food production during their time with the program?

One of the parts of the local food production concentration is what I call the “on-site,” which coincides with interns’ seven- to 10-day orientation at Songaia. The on-site might happen at the beginning of the internship, which is what’s going to happen with my spring internship. We plant, turn compost, visit gardens, gather wild herbs, and cook together, among other activities.

Interns are also required to do 80 hours of garden-to-table things at their rotations during their internship. For example, you’re working in a nursing home and they have this empty planter box, and maybe you can work with the facility to see if we can plant some vegetables. It might be when you’re working at a school, doing some presentations for the students. You might be doing your rotation at a community garden. It also has the flexibility to be something you do on the side. You don’t have a preceptor, but you’re working in a pea patch [small farm] in your neighborhood. You might be doing harvesting for the food bank. I intentionally left it very open so students can look in their community and see what they can do.

Their capstone also focuses on sustainability and local food production. The capstone is usually done during their elective [rotation] and is a project that they develop. One of my interns is currently doing a project where she’s collecting containers from the local recycling center and teaching people how to make planters out of thrown-away plastics so they can grow vegetables in their window box or on their front porch. Another one of my interns developed a cooking class for a summer camp and taught it. Another intern is doing programs at nursing homes working with their gardens.

I’m adding a fourth way to focus on sustainability for the next class coming in. I want them to think about garden to table every month, not just in their elective rotation, so we’ll meet together in July and then do a monthly journal entry. In this journal entry, they’ll share what garden-to-table activity they did. It’s a little trickier in Minnesota in the dead of winter, for example, but they can make kombucha or a sourdough starter, or harvest root vegetables. I’m growing that part of it to try to make it part of the daily practice that they think about and integrates into their life, even if it’s not one of their rotations.

TD: What’s next for the internship program?

Fox: I’ve started to make use of the fact that my students come from diverse backgrounds around the country, so I’m having them do what I call a “minority report”—finding a population that they have a connection to or an interest in and researching the culture, diseases most common, the dos and don’ts of etiquette. One of my new interns has used this to find out more about her own culture because she’s part Native American but didn’t grow up in that culture. From an outside research perspective, she can learn things that she never did. Everyone gets a chance to learn at least a little bit—and I get to learn from some of my students, too.

— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today’s Dietitian and RDLounge.com, the blog written for RDs by RDs.