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Dietitians: Social justice trailblazers then and now

Think having roots in home economics is boring? Think again.  


JenB-HS.jpegJennifer Brady is a dietitian and a PhD candidate in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her dissertation explores the history of the dietetic profession in Canada, specifically the changes in dietetics’ knowledge base and the concomitant changes in the profession’s relationship with food and social justice concerns. Her other research areas include non-diet approaches to understanding health and dietetic practice, the sociology of food and eating, and gendered aspects of food work. Jennifer will start as a new faculty member at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the fall.
 

  

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.

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Cookie Cutters Revolt (1970 Mount Allison University). Home economics students lobby for increased rigour of program requirements and against administration's assumption that home economics students were just "cookie cutters."

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.

The-dietitian-instructs-a-class-of-students-in-the-diet-kitchen-of-the-nurses-residence-at-the-Hospital-for-Sick-Children,-Toronto,-Ontario,-1916-small.jpg
The dietitian instructs a class of students in the diet kitchen of the nurses' residence at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, 1916. (Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada /PA-800284)

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.

Class-at-work-in-the-Ontario-Normal-School-of-Domestic-Science-and-Art,-Hamilton,-Ontario,-approximately-1900-1903-small.jpg
Class at work in the Ontario Normal School of Domestic Science and Art, Hamilton, Ontario, approximately 1900-1903. (Photo Credit: Mrs. John H. Acheson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-057324)

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.

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Airwomen preparing food in the test kitchen, Nutritional Laboratory, R.C.A.F., Guelph, Ontario, 1944. (Photo Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-064961)
 
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.
 
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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. 

 
References
  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.
 
 
  1. Jennifer, I echo the sentiments of the other comments here - thank you for this great article! It was a very nice reminder of the inspiring company I find myself in.
  2. Great article!
    I still proudly wear my Professional Home Economist ring (from 1985 Ryerson graduation - our long-winded program title "Food, Nutrition, Consumer and Family Studies" was an attempt to capture the breadth and depth of our dietetics training.
    The esteemed Jennifer Welsh taught us about food security before the term was coined.
    For the past 30 years I have been living in a northern rural community where I witness past and present quiet leaders of 4H, Women's Institutes and Rural Agricultural Specialists carry the torch of "home economics" tenets forward.
    I still think we need a re-branded title to fairly describe what it is we do - mainstream public has a narrow outdated perspective on what it means to practise home ec or be a "diet"itian.
    Cheers!
  3. Excellent story Jennifer. I do hope that you can publish some of your PHD work in a consumer-friendly book so that we can pass these insights along to our peers, new grads, interns and others. It is so important to see how far dietitians have come from home economists to being fully engaged in advocacy and policy work to ensure social justice and our communities having access to healthy foods and healthy food environments.
  4. Jennifer....this is a terrific piece. I hope more of your thesis is published for wider circulation as it sounds like it will be fascinating. As you know, we are currently working on a historical narrative of the Toronto Nutrition Committee (TNC) and the many local foods and nutrition professionals, particularly Dr. Elizabeth Chant Roberston, who worked together over the years to promote healthier eating and social justice. Lots of good stories worth capturing.
  5. I love this, Jen! Nice shout out to Critical Dietetics as well. I learned so much about the history of Dietetics through Critical Dietetics and scholars like yourself! Great article. It's important to know where we come from and honour those trailblazing women who paved the way for us. And for us to continue to shape this profession of inspiring and passionate leaders!
  6. Jennifer! This is such a beautiful, eloquently written post - thank you.
    I think back to Drs Betty Miles, Jean Sabry, Ros Gibson, Nina Mercer at U of Guelph - we students heard some of these stories from them and their own passion encouragement to us to get out there and speak up!
    I'm so excited and pleased that DC's position and recommendations on Household Food Insecurity will soon go public (August 19!) for all to see and use in their social justice advocacy.
    We are stronger together and stronger than we think.

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