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Why Farmers and Registered Dietitian Nutritionists Are Allies

Last year, I participated in a panel discussion during a regional meeting of the North Carolina Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (NCAND). This was one of four sessions that included information on or related to production agriculture.

I asked the audience of registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) and graduate nutrition students to raise their hands if they’d been on a farm. Of the roughly 150 attendees, I could count the number who’d been on a farm with both hands.  When asked who would like to visit a farm, almost everyone raised their hand.

Many of today’s food conversations include production agriculture and nutrition and health. As a farmer, I can talk to you about how we grow our crops, what happens in the field, food safety, and why we make the farming choices we do. I can tell you how we grow our sweet potatoes and they are good for you, but I can’t tell you the particulars of why they are so healthy.

Likewise, an RDN can tell you exactly why our sweet potatoes are a healthy and nutritious choice, especially for someone with diabetes. They can tell you about safe food-handling practices at home. But many couldn’t tell you from personal experience how sweet potatoes are grown.

So, what is an RDN? According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), RDNs have met four criteria:

            1.  Graduated with at least a bachelor’s degree

            2.  Completed a supervised practice program, which takes 6 to 12 months

            3.  Passed a national exam

            4.  Complete continuing education credits

According to AND, during their undergraduate or graduate career, students may take classes in a variety of topics including food and nutrition science, culinary arts, communication, and microbiology. None of the potential classes listed were agriculture classes, which is not to say that no students ever take an agriculture class. It's just that one is not at the top of the prospective class list. 

RDNs go on to many careers. I know RDNs who work with supermarkets, school nutrition programs, hospitals, in academia, and have private practices. In all these careers, they have one thing in common: Each has been asked questions about farming practices.

Dietitian sign
Photo courtesy Build up Dietitians

This summer, I connected an RDN who teaches undergraduate and graduate nutrition classes with a sweet potato packing house. The professor wanted her students to learn about how food is grown and felt strongly enough to add another agriculture-related trip to her class syllabus. When I asked why she felt it was important to connect her students with farming she said, “Students in nutrition are the ones who need to know about their food supply as they may serve as potential influencers in how the food supply operates.”

If you doubt RDNs are food influencers, just head over to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media. 

They can learn from us, but, just as important, we can learn from them. For example, I can tell you what I’ve learned about dairy farming from visiting several dairies. What I couldn’t tell you, before talking to an RDN, was the nutritional differences in cow’s milk and plant-based alternatives. 

Knowing these differences sets me up to make connections with consumers about the health and nutritional benefits of milk, a conversation I couldn’t have had before. Taking RDNs on a tour of a dairy farm and milk processing plant gives them the personal experience to connect with consumers on issues of animal welfare and food safety.

We know the farm; they know the plate. We need each other, because in today’s world, it’s not enough to just know the nutrition side or just know the farming side. In today’s food conversations, farmers and RDNs can be food allies.

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