Get to Know … Deanna Belleny Lewis
By Elizabeth Goar
Vol. 25 No. 6 P. 50
Diversity Advocate Developing and Empowering Nutrition Leaders of Color
Deanna Belleny Lewis, MPH, RDN, seeks to answer one “beautiful question” as defined by Warren Berger: How can I create change within oppressive and inequitable systems in a way that supports the health and well-being of people of color?
Belleny Lewis, of Oakland, California, has carved out a distinctive career intersecting nutrition and public health, but it was her lived experiences as a woman of color in dietetics that ignited in her a passion for expanding racial and ethnic diversity in the field. It was sparked by her first time visiting the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo™ (FNCE®), where she saw firsthand just how few people of color are in the profession. In 2020, whites accounted for about 80% of professional RDs, while Black RDs accounted for around 3%.1
“Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the nation, and many of our classes at the University of Houston were with other health care students. It was a diverse group, so I didn’t see it until I was on the escalator going to the FNCE conference floor. I saw a sea of people who all looked very similar and realized that this was the optics of the diversity statistic everyone talked about,” she says. “People talked about how FNCE was an awesome experience, but I felt lonely and isolated. It was an eye-opening moment.”
Since then, she cofounded the nonprofit organization Diversify Dietetics and has focused on empowering nutrition leaders of color and addressing the systemic issues contributing to the lack of progress toward a more diverse profession. However, Belleny Lewis’s passion isn’t limited to diversity. Her love of public health manifests in her current work with John Snow, Inc (JSI), a public health consulting organization, where she focuses on nutrition, health equity, and policy impacts. Throughout her career, she has been involved with school nutrition, community-based participatory research, health promotion and disease prevention, federal nutrition policy implementation, and county-based nutrition and physical activity outreach. Along the way, she earned a Master of Public Health from the University of Texas Health Science Center and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from the Harvard Extension School.
Today’s Dietitian (TD): What led you to a career in dietetics and where has this path taken you?
Belleny Lewis: I started as a journalism major, but my advisor suggested a change. While thinking about what else was out there, I remembered a TV show—a sort of nutrition nanny show—that piqued my interest. They taught a woman with chronic conditions how to shop, eat, and move her body. I had never thought about how food can support health on so many different levels. That was the moment I realized I was interested in nutrition. What really hooked me was my first internship at the San Antonio Food Bank. I was involved with nutrition education and created food demos where I’d create education and recipes around an item that was in excess at the food bank. I learned a lot about tailoring your message and working with communities. After graduation, I matched to Prairie View A&M’s dietetic internship and did a rotation at a charter school and Head Start program. This became my first job. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was being passed and Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign, so there was much momentum and energy around policy and community health. I fell in love with it.
TD: When did you first become aware of the lack of diversity in dietetics, and what kind of barriers does it create for people of color?
Belleny Lewis: At FNCE in Boston, where I saw the diversity statistics people talk about, and I had experiences that made me feel isolated and lonely in a profession I was excited to be part of. Vendors looked at me curiously and one woman commented that “there are not many of you here.” It was a very strange, off-putting comment. At the same event, I heard a professor imply that they aren’t sure about advancing diversity because one Black student failed the RDN credentialing exam at her university. I’ve talked to students who are tracked out of RD programs when one class didn’t go well, or someone thought the track was too competitive for them. There are also financial barriers. The systemic issues contributing to the lack of progress in our field over the past decade—the barriers, macro- and microaggressions, and stereotyping—all still exist.
TD: How does this underrepresentation impact dietetics and its ability to reach communities in need?
Belleny Lewis: It impacts who practitioners are and trickles through the entire system to who’s setting policies, developing curriculum, talking in the media, and writing books. It prevents culturally humble care that meets people where they are and understands their food, culture, and the other social determinants of health that impact their lives. America has so many diverse cultures, but the foods we’re taught about are Eurocentric. From my experience, few curriculums address topics around food and culture in an inclusive and comprehensive way. We’re doing a disservice by telling people to cut out entire food groups that are part of their culture.
TD: How are culture and nutrition linked, and how does the lack of diversity impact that connection?
Belleny Lewis: I like to share a personal experience for this—how much I enjoyed eating soul food with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Based on traditional nutrition education, soul food should be demonized, but it has so many ties to African American culture. Enslaved folks made do with what they were given, and that resilience and ingenuity created food that would nourish them and generations to come. The fact that the conversation isn’t more nuanced around soul food, and the other systemic inequities that substantially impact African American health, does it a disservice. Food is an integral part of culture. But the lack of diversity in the profession means we’re taught to regurgitate things that aren’t true, like “you shouldn’t eat soul food.”
TD: What were some of the early steps you took to create change in the profession and cofound Diversify Dietetics?
Belleny Lewis: The early steps were my lived experience, like my first FNCE. That’s when I recognized that we need something that supports people of color and removes any doubt they belong in this profession. I also met Tamara Melton, my Diversify Dietetics cofounder and an amazing leader. She had the education perspective from working at Georgia State University. It’s a majority minority institution and super diverse, but the nutrition classes were predominantly white. We connected on the idea of providing a space where folks of color could have a sense of belonging and creating programs to address the barriers they were up against.
TD: Talk about Diversify Dietetics—what is the organization’s mission, and how is it reaching students and professionals of color?
Belleny Lewis: Our mission is to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the field of nutrition by empowering nutrition leaders of color. Our vision is to have a nutrition profession that reflects the diverse communities it serves. For students, we have mentorship and internship programs and the Dietetic Internship Application Support Program—or DAS—that connects students with coaches and holds workshops on developing competitive internship applications. There’s a pool of amazing and diverse students, but there’s a bottleneck when applying to get into the dietetic internship. DAS addresses that. For professionals, we have workshops and webinars to give them career development tools, particularly if they’re in niche areas of dietetics where diversity is limited. We have an annual virtual summit and we’re launching an in-person communications and media training workshop for the first time this year. For educators, the Recruiting, Retaining and Supporting Diverse Students in Your Program workshop helps them support their students. This year, we created a dietetic internship to put more culturally humble dietitians into the field, and we’re working to secure scholarship funds. Our hope is to create a model that others can replicate to support future dietitians of color.
TD: How is Diversify Dietetics funded? And how might someone get involved with the organization?
Belleny Lewis: Diversify Dietetics is funded through donations from individuals, company sponsorships, limited grant funding, and proceeds of the organization’s programming. The best way people can get involved with us is to become a member, subscribe to our newsletters, or even volunteer to help support one of the programs. For more information, people can visit the website at www.diversifydietetics.org.
TD: What does your typical work week look like?
Belleny Lewis: Monday is dedicated to Diversify Dietetics, getting organized, following up on emails, and getting things set up for events we’re running, or thinking through big picture organizational strategies. The rest of the week is a bit of a mishmash. Mornings, I’ll do some Diversify Dietetics–focused work before transitioning to JSI. In the evenings, I’ll do a bit more Diversify Dietetics work. I typically go into the JSI office in Berkley on Wednesdays. My weeks are meeting heavy—which is the new normal for many folks—so I’m on calls most of the day Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I do try to go for a walk at least three days a week, but otherwise it’s meetings, coordinating professional development opportunities, fleshing out ideas for technical assistance, and moving projects forward. Fridays, I meet with Tamara.
TD: What are some of your favorite meals or foods?
Belleny Lewis: Oh my gosh, I love food. My favorite food of all time is macaroni and cheese. I don’t discriminate; I will eat every single kind of mac and cheese. I also really enjoy Thai food. My favorite meals are those I’ve been wanting to master, like my grandma’s dirty rice. My dad is from Louisiana—dirty rice is one of his favorite dishes and I’ve been wanting to master it for him. Also, gumbo and anything cheesy.
TD: What are your favorite hobbies, and why?
Belleny Lewis: Is working for Diversify Dietetics a hobby? If so, that would be my main one. I like doing yoga. I enjoy trying out new restaurants and going to farmers’ markets in the Bay Area. And drinking Thai tea if you can consider that a hobby.
TD: If we were to peek into your pantry or refrigerator, what would we find?
Belleny Lewis: My pantry has staples like canned beans, corn, and cereal for a quick snack. I also have at least seven different teas in my pantry right now. In my fridge, it’s staples like milk, fruit, and eggs. I also love premade bagged salads that I’ll add something to, like chicken, for a quick meal.
— Elizabeth S. Goar is a freelance health writer based in Benton, Wisconsin.
1. Rogers D. Report on the Academy/Commission on Dietetic Registration 2020 needs satisfaction survey. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2021;121(1):134-138.