RDN Spotlight: Melanie Hall, MS, RD
What is your ethnicity/race? Did your family have any customs related to food?
I am African American. My family had a number of culinary things going on as I was growing up. I was a picky eater. My mother is from Louisiana, my Father is from California, and before my sister and I were born, they were stationed in Japan for nine years while my dad was in the U.S. Air Force. So on one hand, I have felt comfortable using chopsticks for as long as I can remember. On the other, I have vivid memories of my parents cooking chitterlings while I found the perfect spot in the house where I could avoid smelling them. But the one tradition we all agreed on was feasting for Thanksgiving and Christmas. To clarify, a traditional holiday meal for the four of us included an entire turkey, duck, and ham; a beef roast; and a fifth meat option that changed every year (goose, rabbit, salmon, etc.). This was all served with at least five side dishes, several appetizers (lumpia, nachos, and such), and four or more desserts (like Mississippi mud cake, sweet potato pie, and cookies). These feasts grew out of my mother's sense of southern hospitality, she wanted to make sure everyone had their favorite foods, and since we had such differing preferences, the menu grew year after year.
Where did you go to school and complete your dietetic internship?
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences at University of California at Berkeley, my Master of Science in Nutrition Communications at Tufts University and I completed my dietetic internship at Frances Stern Nutrition Center.
Why did you decide to choose nutrition and dietetics as a career?
I wasn't sure what I wanted to major in until my mother informed me that claiming “Undecided” was not an option, and (her words, not mine). I "needed a job" when I graduated, so humanities majors weren't an option either. I opened the University of California brochure that listed all the possible majors, started at Astronomy, and put a check by every STEM major that sounded interesting until I reached Zoology. My short list consisted of food science, nutrition, pharmacology, and toxicology. Nutrition sounded the most fascinating. I am so thankful I ended up loving it!
What do you do now as a dietetics professional and what does a typical day or week look like for you?
I am a senior partner on the Kellogg Company Wellbeing Team. I manage all the work we do with the Special Supplemental Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC). I also help the sales team work with retail dietitians and other retail wellness teams to create and deliver wellbeing themed activities that shoppers can enjoy in store.
In an average quarter, I am responsible for delivering against the strategic plan I created for our work with WIC stakeholders. This includes helping Kellogg make WIC eligible foods, developing tools and delivering trainings that help dietitians engage WIC clients in activities that promote healthy eating patterns, creating digital content, working with the National WIC Association help stakeholders (retailers, manufacturers, WIC staff, publishers, etc.) find solutions that make WIC an easier program for staff to deliver and clients to enjoy. I also play a leadership role on a few national health and wellness committees and work with retail dietitians to create innovative wellbeing messages, affordable healthy meals, and simple tips that help all shoppers along their wellness journey.
What was the biggest challenge for you in becoming a dietitian and how did you overcome it?
I had not originally planned to go to grad school and decided that I would find a way to pay for it without putting any additional financial burden on my parents. In addition, I decided to dedicate all my time to my studies and jobs that were directly relevant to my degree, which were hard to find my first year. To top it all off, the financial aid department made a big mistake and returned a student loan I was expecting (and neglected to tell me). As a result, I could only afford my rent, a T-pass [for public transit], and about $40 for food each month of my first summer of grad school. I weathered the situation by trying to get a feel for what it means to make healthy choices on a limited budget (though I cheated a bit thanks to my access to a lot of Boost samples at the internship). By my second year, the loan situation had cleared up and I had made enough of a name for myself to start getting regular work as a guest lecturer/counselor for several local wellness programs. It was tough, but short-term, and by the time I graduated I had a robust resume, which helped me land a contract manager position right out of grad school.
Have you had any mentors and how have they affected your career?
Absolutely! My first job was for the Network for a Healthy California, where I was blessed with great mentors that pointed me in the direction of industry and served as great examples of what strong, confident, female leadership looks like. I can obey a manager that checks the box and gets the job done, but there is nothing like following a leader. A leader will take you places you hadn't dreamed of and teach you to do the same for others.
Why do you think diversifying the field of nutrition is important?
The direct benefit is that clients need more people in the field that understand and celebrate a wider variety of food cultures. The indirect benefit is also important but rarely discussed. When you're the "only one" of a given ethnic group whether you are at work, school, or the doctor’s office, you also carry the burden of coaching your colleagues, teachers, and service providers about relevant aspects of your culture on top of everything else you are responsible for. Unfortunately, if/when you experience people dismissing, ignoring, or judging those cultural differences you are less likely to share them. When you apply that scenario to health and nutrition, you have a situation where vital information may be withheld or shared and ignored, resulting in poorer health outcomes. I have seen it happen in outpatient programs, WIC, retail, you name it. When dietitians and other health professionals of European descent have more people of color as their peers, it helps them have more experiences that improve their level of cultural humility when interacting with patients of color or making policy decisions that affect the access that communities have to healthy, culturally appropriate foods.
What advice would you give a student of color interested in entering this profession?
Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. There are so many opportunities missed and conversations avoided because someone is trying to avoid discomfort. That's where you can lean in and gain skills that will make you invaluable or lead a necessary change. Whether it is public speaking, learning about a variety of food cultures, preventing food elitism, identifying policies that encourage racial health disparities, or having necessary dialogue about bias or microaggressions in the workplace, your ability to be effective and collaborative in those situations will help you succeed.