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Food for Thought from Dietitian Cara Harbstreet
The letters after her name give Cara Harbstreet a unique vantage point.
“The credentials that I have are MS, RD, LD. That refers to my master’s degree, RD is registered dietitian, and then licensed dietitian is LD. Most states also require licensure in order to practice as a dietitian,” Harbstreet explains.
Her training as a dietitian isn’t the only thing that has shaped Harbstreet’s point of view, though. Due to social media connections and events around the country, she’s been able to spend time with boots on the ground visiting farmers who grow the food products she talks about every day.
Getting to the Farm Gate
Harbstreet has found her sweet spot now, but she wasn’t always passionate about food and where it came from. She admits, even among dietitians, her career path has been nontraditional.
Although Harbstreet grew up in a rural area, she says her understanding of agriculture was minimal, at best. In college, a class called World Food and Agriculture helped her discover a curiosity in food and nutrition. That spark ultimately led Harbstreet to change her secondary art education major and pursue training as a dietitian.
After earning her credentials, Harbstreet was invited on a farm tour by Kansas Farm Bureau.
“That was one of the first instances where I was having these face-to-face conversations with farmers. I was just fascinated, hearing the stories and the background and connecting it to what I was talking to my clients
about nutrition-wise,” she recalls.
Harbstreet has been on many farm tours since, and her job looks a bit different than she first imagined. She doesn’t work in a hospital or see patients one-on-one. In fact, she has a home office, and Instagram is a tool she uses daily.
“It’s much more on the communication side of things. Communicating those messages to either combat some of the myths that are out there or to encourage people to be more curious when it comes to their food,” Harbstreet explains.
Through her work, Harbstreet interacts with many agriculture organizations and companies. She says many have hosted great informal, yet educational, experiences. She cites a recent farm-to-table dinner hosted by BASF as an example.
“Having some time to have really candid and transparent conversation with farmers has been so, so helpful for me personally to understand my relationship with food a little bit better and to also understand what resources I have from a professional standpoint,” Harbstreet explains.
A relaxed environment where people can eat and drink helps people feel comfortable enough to dig into the tougher questions that may not come up in a more formal, professional type of setting, she says.
No matter the setting, being open and transparent is key for farmers who want to share their way of life.
“Saying ‘I can’t speak for the industry as a whole, but this is how we do it. This is what goes through our mind and the concerns we have and how we address them’ is effective when answering questions from dietitians or anyone else interested in food,” Harbstreet explains.
Don’t Forget Your Heart
While she’s had many positive experiences with the agriculture community, Harbstreet has experienced some cringeworthy attempts at outreach.
“My clients, they’re human just like anybody else. So the foundation of their decision making is still that very visceral or emotional reaction. I think it is helpful in some cases to have things like data or numbers or facts, but at the end of the day, even in light of that information, we’re pulled by the storytelling piece of it,” Harbstreet reminds farmers.
“Sometimes there can be this formality involved in these conversations where we have the evidence or we have the proof that this works, but it doesn’t really dig into that emotional aspect. There remains a disconnect.”