March 2021 Issue
TD10 — Today’s Dietitian’s 12th Annual Showcase of 10 RDs Who Are Making a Difference
By Lori Zanteson
Vol. 23, No. 3, P. 24
Dietitians are some of the most talented professionals in health care today. They specialize in disease management, sports nutrition, enteral and parenteral nutrition, supermarket retail, media communications, foodservice, public health, corporate wellness, and education, and many are entrepreneurs. They’re nothing short of amazing.
Each year, Today’s Dietitian (TD) is as excited to receive hundreds of nominations as our readers are to shout out their colleagues’ stellar accomplishments. And each year—this is our 12th—it becomes increasingly difficult to choose a small number of winners among such dedicated, driven, and motivating professionals.
However, this challenge is the perfect opportunity for TD to recognize National Nutrition Month™ and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day. This year’s TD10 showcases 10 RDs who are profoundly impacting the nutrition profession in myriad ways. Winners are making a difference in diversity, maternal health, renal nutrition, critical care nutrition, and other areas. These individuals are improving the lives of children, the underserved, and cancer patients—and all in the midst of a pandemic.
You’re sure to be inspired by these individuals and the many ways in which they’re elevating the role of the RD and improving the quality of health care.
Mary Meer, RD, CNSC
Critical Care Dietitian Specialist at Banner University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona
Mary Meer is an exceptional professional who genuinely thrives in her role as a critical care dietitian. With more than 30 years dedicated to this field, Meer has taken her knowledge, experience, and skill set to a level that enables her to stand tall above the rest. As part of providing enteral nutrition support to surgical trauma patients, she never takes what’s written on a patient’s chart at face value. Instead, she checks the infusion pumps to determine what’s draining and the acute changes in patients. She encourages RDs to speak with doctors, join them on rounds, and discuss nutrition plans and goals.
She’s truly an advocate for patients and believes every patient deserves the best care. “Every patient is like my family member,” Meer says. “I approach them as I’d want the care of my family members or friends.” She does whatever she can to make sure this happens. She believes she can benefit patients most by staying current with practices and communicating. This means nobody is out of the loop, from nursing and nutrition to pharmacy and physicians. “I use them as my allies when I can’t round with every patient,” she says. “The team,” as she calls them, shares open communication. They know they can text or call her anytime. Though Meer has her own office, her team has given her a desk and computer in the ICU, so they know where to find her.
Those who work with Meer know she chases knowledge because it leads to the best patient care. She keeps abreast of current nutrition literature, of course, but also seeks out other areas of research such as nursing and pharmacy literature to get a broader perspective and keep her mind open to new ways of helping patients. Dedicated to disseminating information, Meer gives monthly nutrition classes for residents, sits on several committees, including the Banner System Nutrition Team and the Intensive Care Committee, is the nutrition representative on several teams, and is regularly sought out by physicians, including those from other hospitals, as the go-to source for information.
Deanna Belleny Lewis, MPH, RDN
Cofounder and Director of Programs at Diversify Dietetics; Assistant Director, Health Systems Transformation, Harvard Medical School Center for Primary Care in Boston
Today, there’s more emphasis on diversifying the field of dietetics than ever before. With hard work, greater diversity is getting underway, thanks to Deanna Belleny Lewis, whose passion and drive led to her cofounding Diversify Dietetics, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the profession by empowering nutrition leaders of color.
The inspiration came while attending the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo™ (FNCE®) one year when Belleny Lewis was spoken to and about in derogatory ways by other RDs because she’s African American. “The conference experience made things click into place for me,” Belleny Lewis says. She knew experiences like this would perpetuate for other people of color because the systems aren’t in place to support diversity. “I wanted to create something specific to support students who wanted to be in dietetics,” she says.
Diversify Dietetics is all about building community to support and empower nutrition leaders of color. There are three tiers: students, professionals, and educators. The programs attract, encourage, and equip students and professionals of color to thrive in the field. Belleny Lewis leads several programs, including a national mentor program, DICAS (Dietetic Internship Centralized Application Services) Application Support Program, webinars, and a podcast series that addresses obstacles students and RDs may face. And this is all in addition to her full-time position at Harvard Medical Center where she develops and implements programs that help improve primary care practices, including leadership development, quality improvement, and improving team-based and patient-centered care.
“[In 2019], FNCE® was a completely different experience. To be able to walk around with other people of color gives a sense of belonging in a profession you care so much about,” she says. The impact of Belleny Lewis is clear. Her vision is fixed on expanding this community of belonging and inclusion in dietetics. “I hope to build that inclusive environment.”
Michelle Tiburzio, RD, LD, CLC
Dietitian for Moms2B at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio
Empowered by the COVID-19 crisis, Michelle Tiburzio stepped into action, making sure the moms in the Moms2B program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center had healthful, nutritious food to feed themselves and their families. Even prepandemic, most of the pregnant women in the program were experiencing some degree of food insecurity. So, in the wake of the pandemic panic when grocery store supplies and shelf-stable foods became scarce and pregnant women were advised to avoid populated places, Tiburzio got to work. “I wanted to offer a source of food they wouldn’t have to leave home and risk exposure for,” Tiburzio says.
Tapping into an existing partnership with a Meals on Wheels distributor, Tiburzio had them deliver food to her moms. Each meal provides one-third of the Dietary Reference Intakes and is approved by a dietitian. She also coordinated deliveries from a local food pantry. One of the largest efforts involved applying for several grants, including one from the United Way, which helped raise funds to provide 20 meals per week for six weeks to any mom who stated she’d benefit from the program. “Our moms are wonderful and gracious and appreciative, and they responded in that fashion. I received several messages of thanks for the food deliveries and continue to talk to moms and hear how the meals have or are impacting them and relieving some of their stressors,” Tiburzio says.
Currently, Tiburzio is working to make fresh fruits and vegetables available to Moms2B moms through the Fresh Food Prescription program. Moms receive a voucher to redeem at local farmers’ markets and participating grocery stores. Tiburzio hopes this will encourage their consumption of fruits and vegetables and support local agriculture and business.
Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND
Nutrition Advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research in Buffalo, New York
Recognized as the expert in cardiovascular nutrition and cancer prevention, Karen Collins is regularly sought after to present at conferences, such as that of the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, and give guest lectures at universities all across the country. Having worked in cardiovascular nutrition since her earliest days as a hospital clinical dietitian, Collins considers her role the result of a “confluence of influences,” such as when she served as director and then chair of the cardiovascular and wellness nutrition subunit of SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition), one of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Dietetic Practice Groups. She credits the many researchers and leaders in the cardiovascular profession who stress the importance of evidence-based care and staying current with research. “All set the bar high as examples of excellence, while also being extremely gracious and supportive mentors,” Collins says.
Collins’ high standard of excellence has elevated the role and visibility of the RD as the nutrition expert. “Emphasizing through word and example that dietetics is an evidence-based profession [and] implementing science is key. And we need to be able to show other health professionals and the public that dietitians are the ones who know the art and the science of healthful eating,” she says. In 2019, Collins was the first recipient of the Distinguished Service Award by the American Institute of Cancer Research for her unparalleled expertise in translating nutrition research into empowering, evidence-based messages. “Presented at a conference filled with researchers, to have a dietitian highlighted as the important translator of research, is something that to me speaks volumes about recognizing the vital role of dietitians,” Collins says.
Currently, Collins works as an independent consultant specializing in cardiovascular nutrition, cancer prevention and survivorship, and their intersection. She writes (she’s published more than 2,000 articles for the public), speaks, and consults. And, through her website, KarenCollinsNutrition.com, she provides research reviews covering nutrition topics related to cardiovascular health, cancer prevention, and cardio-oncology to translate new findings in the context of overall research. She also has free educational resources for dietitians to use in communicating key points.
Jim White, RD, ACSM Ex-P, CPT
Owner, Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, Jim White Medical Nutrition Therapy, LIFT Fitness Foundation, Jim White Workplace Wellness in Virginia Beach, Virginia
When Jim White left his hometown in Ohio for Virginia Beach with just $400 in his pocket and a degree in dietetics, he knew he wanted to change lives through the vehicles of nutrition and fitness. His determination, passion, and hard work turned that $400 into a thriving business he founded where he and his team of dietitians and fitness professionals are indeed improving people’s lives, inspiring them to live more healthful lifestyles.
White’s commitment to his clients has grown only stronger through the many programs Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios offers, including nutrition counseling, personal training, and workplace wellness. His dedication, passion, and innovation are perhaps most apparent in his nonprofit, Jim White LIFT Fitness Foundation, which offers fitness and nutrition education and job skills development at no cost to the homeless, women who are survivors of domestic abuse, and at-risk youth. Nutrition education includes learning how to shop for groceries on a budget, read food labels, and make recipes using nonperishable food items.
The idea to start a foundation came to him while leading boot camp training on the Virginia Beach oceanfront when a participant expressed annoyance that homeless people were “in the way.” White saw an opportunity. “I decided to be part of the solution,” he says. White met with community agencies and asked how his team could help the underserved get back on their feet. “In six years, we’ve changed hundreds of lives,” he says. “We know the power of nutrition on one’s body and mind.”
In addition to his many roles—author of several books and expert on several advisory boards and for national media outlets—White dedicates his time as an advisor, mentor, and preceptor for dietetics and fitness interns. When interns get discouraged and think they can’t succeed, White is quick to turn that around. He lets them know that RDs are a hugely important part of people’s health journeys. “I think RDs are the unsung heroes,” he says. The number of touchpoints that RDs have with clients compared with any other health professional in their chain makes a difference. “It really comes down to connecting with people. That’s where I think we’re changing people’s lives.”
Janelle Eligon-Ketchum, RDN, LDN, CDCES
Founder and CEO of Nutrition Unlimited in Philadelphia
Janelle Eligon-Ketchum believes that one of the best ways to improve health is to eat nutritious foods associated with one’s cultural roots.
She came to this realization, the spark that ignited the founding of her corporate wellness company Nutrition Unlimited, when she saw how much her culturally inclusive approach to eating and preparing meals improved health outcomes among her clients in an outpatient setting in North Philadelphia.
“Not a lot of people were connecting from a cultural perspective,” Eligon-Ketchum says. Seeing a lot of diabetes and the need for nutrition, she encouraged this community of underrepresented groups, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and East Indians, to get back to their cultural way of eating rather than relying on the fast food all around them. “I saw first hand the difference that representation and practicing cultural humility made in the effectiveness of medical nutrition therapy and diabetes education,” she says.
Nutrition Unlimited is one of few African American woman–owned corporate wellness companies that provides culturally inclusive MNT and diabetes education with a diverse RD representation in the Philadelphia area. Eligon-Ketchum and her team partner with several organizations that employ many underserved groups. Before COVID-19, the team visited the organizations to see the workplaces, the fast food around them, and where employees could shop for groceries.
Now, they provide virtual one-on-one MNT, group diabetes programs, and diabetes prevention and nutrition initiatives, and the majority of clients have improved their health outcomes. Two big client wins this year include helping a client decrease her A1c from 14.9% to 7.1% in three months during the pandemic and helping another client access free heart medication so she no longer has to choose between groceries and medications.
Because she sees clients through a cultural lens, Eligon-Ketchum and her diverse team understand and address barriers and biases preventing them from gaining access to healthful foods and quality health care. A shared culture with clients makes a profound difference. “Having the same lived experiences, knowing different cultural foods, when you’re brought up the same way, they’re receptive,” Eligon-Ketchum says. Whether connecting clients with health care providers who practice cultural humility or giving them access to resources for lower-cost medications and coupons for quality groceries and produce, Eligon-Ketchum and Nutrition Unlimited are proof representation matters.
Erika Stahl, RD, LDN, CSR, CSS
Dietitian for DaVita Kidney Care/Dialysis in Orlando, Florida
Erika Stahl has enriched the lives of countless dialysis patients and renal dietitians by highlighting cultural awareness. What began as a personal endeavor to provide Spanish-speaking patients from Central and South America with appropriate cultural foods—rather than the American foods listed in handouts—that were safe for dialysis patients, is now a companywide initiative that helps patients from cultures all over the world, from Korea to Germany to Ghana.
To better serve her patients, Stahl spent years doing independent research on common foods and dishes from various cultures and even ventured to ethnic markets to check out ingredients firsthand. Now, each month, she features renal-friendly recipes and games that teach patients what they can eat, as well as how to work around holiday foods. According to one of Stahl’s colleagues, “Her patients look forward to these monthly events, and their labs have improved significantly from her efforts to show them what they actually can eat. They are very encouraged by the information she provides.”
As the regional point dietitian, Stahl used her leadership position to share the cultural information with other RDs to benefit their patients. She had her dietitians sign up to present on a culture of their choice, featuring popular dishes, staple foods, and dietary patterns, along with relevant nutrition information for dialysis patients. “We have been working on this project less than a year, but have already received very positive feedback from the RDs in the field. It has helped them better serve their patients and fills the gaps for culturally relevant nutrition education that we so desperately needed,” Stahl says.
This work no doubt contributed to her winning a regional DaVita Shining Star award, which is given to only one recipient in the Northern Virginia region who exemplifies the company’s core values and is an inspiration to other employees and patients.
As of December, Stahl has changed positions. She now works as a registered dietitian specialist in the NICU at Advent Health Orlando in Florida.
Charlene Russell-Tucker, MSM, RDN
Deputy Commissioner of Education for the Connecticut State Department of Education in Guilford, Connecticut
A true visionary, Charlene Russell-Tucker lets nothing stand in her way. This dietitian works tirelessly to improve the lives of children and their families, and she refuses to be placed in a box. “I have always been the one to break the mold in order to do what needs to be done,” Russell-Tucker says. She began her journey advocating for children as a Head Start nutrition coordinator, working hands-on to plan menus and perform nutrition consultations for children with specific health needs. Then, she quickly expanded her responsibilities and reach beyond the traditional roles of a dietitian to support children by implementing change through policymaking. Amid COVID-19, one of her goals is to assist school districts with reopening schools and employing strategies to maintain the health and safety of students and staff. Before her appointment as deputy commissioner of education for the Connecticut State Department of Education, where she oversees educational supports and wellness priorities, she served as chief operating officer and division chief for the department’s Office of Student Supports and Organizational Effectiveness, and served as associate commissioner of education and bureau chief within the department.
Tapping into education, health, and nutrition, Russell-Tucker sees how they all connect. This is her leverage. “Children are at the center of everything I do. Nutrition and education are the sweet spots. We have to educate the whole child. A hungry child, a child experiencing trauma will encounter learning challenges,” she says. Working at the national level helps take her vision and message to the next level. Russell-Tucker is active in many state and national committees, including co-chair of the Connecticut Assembly Committee on Children Strategic Action Group on Chronic Absence, where her state is leading the way in getting more kids in school. She also has served as an expert panel member on committees of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, as president of the Connecticut Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and currently volunteers her time on local boards, including Child Health and Development Institute and The Children’s Fund of Connecticut, addressing polices related to children’s behavioral health and related efforts.
Reflecting on all that she does, Russell-Tucker says she always will challenge herself to never be satisfied when it comes to making sure kids and families have what they need, including excellent educators. Recently, her unwavering resolve was recognized when she received the MENTOR National 2021 Excellence in Mentoring award in public service. This award is given to a public official who has shaped or advanced policy, programs, or campaigns to support youth mentoring initiatives.
Syeda Farid, MS, RD, LDN
Cancer Center Nutritionist at Swedish Hospital, Part of NorthShore University Health System in Chicago
Syeda Farid has been instrumental in helping care for patients at Swedish Hospital’s Cancer Center and beyond. Chemo and radiation patients are at especially high risk of contracting COVID-19. To minimize their exposure, Farid organized the delivery of more than 2,100 free meals to patients’ homes since the outbreak. She not only assesses patients’ needs for the meals but also teaches them how to tailor meals by adding beans or rice, or herbs and spices to enhance foods’ palatability during cancer treatment.
In addition to the countless hours she spent seeking donors to make these meals and their delivery a reality, the hospital approved her longtime vision for an on-site food pantry to help meet the nutritional needs of cancer patients who might not otherwise have the resources or energy to access healthful foods. She assembles what she calls “goody bags” of healthful groceries and easy-to-unwrap snacks in “small, pretty packages, so they’re tempted to eat,” Farid says. She also ensures they’re available to all patients, even those who can afford to buy their own food, because, she says, they don’t always have the energy to cook.
Farid’s ability and willingness to assess the needs of the whole patient, using nutrition as the vehicle to best serve their needs, has been pivotal. Swedish Hospital serves a community with a high immigrant population and addresses the complex needs that come with different cultures. Because Farid listens to them and honors their beliefs, she gains their trust and willingness to heed her advice on how to make the changes they need to improve their health. “I talk to patients, I teach them. I customize, I include the entire family with patient care,” she says. “Patient outcome, being human, being empathetic, is so important. It feeds my soul.”
Katie Ferraro, MPH, RDN, CDE
Founder of The Fortified Family in San Diego
Because of Katie Ferraro’s passion, dedication, and innovation, baby-led weaning is more accessible to families around the globe. Baby-led weaning skips spoon-feeding, allowing babies at about 6 months old to feed themselves finger foods. Ferraro founded The Fortified Family to help other parents who, like herself, struggled with spoon-feeding their infants. The community Ferraro built has grown into the largest digital community dedicated to baby-led weaning, consisting of parents, health professionals, and caregivers worldwide. She engages via e-mail, podcasts, and even co-teaches a digital program with a leading pediatric expert, helping families adapt baby-led weaning to their cultural, environmental, and socioeconomic needs.
Committed to making her mission as inclusive and accessible to as many families as possible (Ferraro’s diverse team shares baby-led weaning recipes, such as baba ganoush and pad thai), Ferraro interviews baby food experts from other countries, discusses social justice issues surrounding Black Lives Matter, and represents babies of all races, cultures, and abilities on her online and social media platforms.
Ferraro’s passion is to empower parents, but she’s also dedicated to extending the reach of baby-led weaning among professionals in this space. She teaches graduate level nutrition and works alongside pediatricians, feeding therapists, and researchers. This is an opportunity as an RD to influence and educate other professionals. “I think it’s so important for dietitians to be involved in and recognized as authorities in infant feeding and baby-led weaning,” Ferraro says. She’s doing her part to give baby-led weaning broader recognition, including offering a course for RDs to learn how to incorporate it into their professional lives. “Frankly, as a college professor, I’m not happy with RDs being taught traditional spoon-feeding and outdated approaches to introducing solid foods, allergenic foods, challenging textures,” she says. “And I’m working diligently to help change that.”
— Lori Zanteson is a food, nutrition, and health writer based in Southern California.