skip to content

Dietitians: Social justice trailblazers then and now

Although my internship prepared me well to practice as a dietitian, I left it with more questions than answers.  I wondered about the (primarily) women who built the profession from the ground up. How and why had they created this profession?  How does their work continue to shape what the dietetic profession is today?
These questions lead me to begin a PhD at Queen’s University to study the history of dietetics in Canada. As part of my PhD work, I have had the good fortune of interviewing 18 current and former dietitians who have all been recognized as leaders in the profession.
I want to share one aspect of what I learned about dietetics’ early history that makes me proud to be a member of this profession. As many clichés will tell you, understanding our past is a necessary part of understanding who we are today and who we are likely to be in the future. It is well known that in North America the dietetic profession evolved from home economics. However, what is not well known is that the women home economists who founded the dietetic profession were deeply involved in the politics of their day.

These women had a tremendous impact on advancing women’s rights and made inroads in many food-related social justice issues that we largely take for granted today, such as basic food safety and sanitation legislation, as well as issues that we are still struggling to resolve, including food insecurity and fair labour practices in food production.
The cliché about history repeating itself tends to bear out. With this in mind, it is fortunate that a group of women that can only be described as trailblazers forged the origins of our profession.
A history as social justice trailblazers 
Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) is an example of one of the first women who blazed a trail for our profession. She is credited with founding home economics in North America. Richards was trained in chemistry at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She graduated in 1870, and received a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in 1873. Despite her advanced study, she was barred from receiving a doctorate degree because she was a woman.
For Richards and her peers, founding home economics as a separate field of scientific study and a profession was an act of resistance against the existing educational, professional, and legal institutions that prohibited women’s participation.1 For women of this era to pursue advanced degrees and professional careers was unusual and required a hard fought battle. Women were not recognized as people under the law but were considered simply the property of their fathers until marriage. They then became the property of their husbands.

Home economists were also leaders in advancing many food-related social justice issues. Their work was aimed at changing the social, economic, political, and environmental problems that impacted people’s well-being—today we see this work echoed in the Social Determinants of Health Framework.
Home economists organized “White Label” campaigns to advocate for fair wages and safe working conditions in food production and manufacturing. They also lead nutrition campaigns, maternal and new immigrant support programs, as well as education efforts to teach families about food preservation. Another initiative by home economists that continued their social justice work involved educating the public about the germ theory of disease, which enabled women to better advocate for tighter food safety regulations.
Social justice in dietetics today
Fortunately, this commitment to advancing social justice has been carried on by dietitians today, some of whom have had their leadership recognized by the profession. I urge anyone, who like me, couldn’t attend the 2014 Dietitians of Canada National Conference in Ottawa, to view Dr. Kim Raine’s lecture that she delivered as the Ryley-Jeffs Memorial Lecture Award recipient.
Dr. Raine’s work has had a tremendous impact on dietitians’ awareness of and involvement in the social and environmental factors that impact individual, community, and global health outcomes. Others have helped to develop Critical Dietetics—a movement started by dietitians who want to enhance our roles as social justice advocates. Many dietitians will be attending the sixth International Critical Dietetics Conference in Granada, Spain this fall.

The food related social justice issues facing the world today are not unlike those faced by the early leaders of our profession. Food insecurity and global hunger, climate change, income and gender inequality, and sustainable food systems have roots in the same political, economic, social, and environmental systems that gave rise to the food safety concerns of the early 1900s.
I believe that realizing our full potential as food and nutrition professionals means following in the footsteps of Dr. Raine and other dietitians leading the charge in social justice advocacy, as well as our early leaders, by continuing to blaze a trail as social justice advocates. I am thankful that as a dietitian I have these role models to look to for inspiration in understanding my role in effecting social change. I am also thankful that through my PhD I have had the opportunity to learn about our history from some of our longest serving members.
Connecting with our history
Why is it important that dietitians today understand and appreciate this history? I think it is vital for practitioners to have a sense of the development of the profession. Perhaps more importantly, connecting with this history helps us understand the tremendous impact that we could have on food-related social justice issues today.
As we look to the future, many dietitians know that we have a key role to play in shaping a healthier food system; and I use healthy in the widest sense of the word—environmentally, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, as well as physically healthy. Yet, working toward such a food system demands that we understand, and are prepared to engage with, the political aspects of our work.

We must get comfortable with the idea of our roles as social justice advocates and learn the language that will help us speak about the challenges of doing so. We must step into practice, in all its forms, with the goal of not only empowering individuals to change their health behaviours, but also influencing change in the structural factors that create the inequalities that lead to ill health for so many people.
Perhaps more so than any other profession, we have a precious opportunity to influence the larger structures and systems that impact peoples’ opportunities for good health. I couldn’t be prouder of the work our profession’s founders did to effect social change. Here’s to hoping that history does repeat itself and that Canadian dietitians continue the trailblazing work of the women to whom we owe so much.
Editor’s note: What an amazing history our profession has! It is inspiring to know how much of a difference a single person, like Ellen Swallow Richards, can make and how strong we can be when we work together. Our profession (then and now) has so many inspirational leaders that I personally look up to and I hope to follow in their footsteps. 
Do you know more about the history of our profession to add to Jennifer’s insights? What leader(s) do you look to for inspiration in your area of dietetics? Give them a shout out in the comments section below or share your thoughts on Jen’s article. 

  1. Stage, Sarah. (1997a). Introduction: Home Economics, What’s in a Name? In Stage, Sarah and Vincenti, Virginia B. (Eds.). Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession (pp. 1-14). New York: Cornell University Press.
Back to top