James Madison University

Nutrition Expert Inspires Dietetics Students

By: Daniel Vieth
Posted: April 6, 2015

When it comes to food and nutrition issues there are a lot of topics that our culture is finally willing to discuss, such as obesity, eating disorders, and starvation in other nations. While having these difficult discussions is a positive step, there is at least one topic we are not talking about; starvation in our own neighborhoods. According to the Economic Research Service (ERS), it is estimated that 17.6 million (14.5%) of US households in 2012 were considered “food insecure,” defined as when a “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year” (USDA).

PHOTO:Michelle Berger-Marshall

Thankfully there are individuals committed to spreading awareness about this largely silent topic, such as Michelle Berger-Marshall, the Director of Nutrition for Feeding America. Because of her role as an influential dietitian, JMU’s Dietetics Program hosted Marshall as the keynote speaker for the 2015 Nancy Powell Hardaway Speaker Series on Wednesday, March 18. Marshall spent the day discussing issues of hunger in America to groups on and off campus, and inspired dietetics majors by showing the positive impact they can make with their degree.

Each year, the Dietetics Program invites a practitioner to come and speak to students, faculty, and community members, thanks to the generous donations of the Hardaway family. “The [Hardaway] endowment allows us to bring a Registered Dietitian to campus for a keynote address and to interact with our students,” further explained Dietetics professor Dr. Michelle Hesse. “Marshall was a perfect fit for the spirit of the Hardaway Speaker Series, as her work is life changing and of great interest to our students and community.”

Marshall has been the Director of Nutrition at Feeding America for the past six years, where she oversees the organization’s nutritional strategy and works to raise awareness of food insecurity and nutrition education. Feeding America is the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief organization, overseeing a network of over 200 food banks around the country. With the help of people like Marshall, the organization has also made it a goal to ensure that the food they distribute is more nutritious.

While visiting JMU for the Hardaway Speaker Series, Marshall visited community members at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank (part of Feeding America’s network of food banks), hosted a Think Tank Discussion on hunger, talked to a dietetics class, and gave her keynote address entitled ‘Food Insecurity, Nutrition & Health - What all Health Professionals Need to Know.’

The dietetics students involved throughout the day had the opportunity to learn more about issues of food insecurity and nutrition at food banks, and were inspired by the kind of positive work they can do with a dietetics degree. “The goal of this program is to allow our students to see successful individuals in the field of dietetics,” Hesse continued. “With Marshall’s work so grounded to the community, this allows our students to become engaged in this area of work to determine if this career is the right path for them.”

Speaking to a group of dietetics students, Marshall emphasized how much her dietetics degree made a difference for her in her career. “Being a dietitian has given me the edge and adds credibility,” Marshall said to the NUTR 385 Lifecycle Nutrition class. “This skill set adds value to conversations that health professionals don’t typically think about.” Answering questions about whether she knew what she wanted to do back in college, Marshall told the group that while she never had a single epiphany, the combination of courses she took, a life-changing trip helping malnourished HIV-positive orphans in Kenya, and the broad capabilities of the degree helped her land the right job. “There are so many paths you can take as a dietitian, you just have to be open to possibilities, and be okay with not always knowing” Marshall passionately spoke. “It’s about building relationships with people, hearing about their experiences, and in turn learning about yourself and what you want to do.”

Marshall’s work with helping spread awareness about domestic food insecurity at Feeding America is both a huge benefit for those in need and inspirational to students who also want to help people with their knowledge in nutrition. “The JMU Dietetics Program has so many professors I have met that not only are knowledgeable, but also really care deeply about their students and want them to succeed,” Marshall added. “That is a great opportunity that JMU dietetic students should take advantage of.”

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