Change is literally in store for Ward 8, the Washington, DC, community with the highest rates of poverty and chronic disease. In 2018, the grocery store retailer, Giant Food, launched a food-driven wellness initiative in Ward 8 that, in part, aims to make stronger correlations between healthy eating and health outcomes. The initiative’s centerpiece is the ingenious creation of a wellness center inside Giant’s Congress Heights grocery store, currently the only full-service grocery store in that community. There, residents have taken fitness and cooking classes as well as chatted with an in-store registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) about healthy meal options.
That RDN is Jillian Griffith, who joined the store’s team not only to bolster better eating habits for shoppers but also build community partnerships with other organizations looking to improve the health of those living in the community. The connections made have initiated in-store wellness events as well as increased nutrition education throughout Ward 8.
In our interview with Griffith, she chats about the benefits of the wellness center, her strategic role at Nutrition On Demand, and why a lack of diversity in dietetics is hindering the field.
What led you to a career in dietetics?
My interest in nutrition stemmed from my own experience with childhood obesity and wanting to do work in that space. Before going to college, I had never met a dietitian and didn’t know anything about the field of dietetics. When it was time to pick a college and figure out what I was going to study, I decided to major in nutrition because of my personal interest and had my mind set on medical school. Through my studies and different practicum experiences, I was drawn away from the pre-med track to the broader field of public health and working on the prevention side of the health system. I decided to pursue my Master of Science in Public Health Nutrition and Registered Dietitian credentialing so that I could still have the clinical knowledge but concentrate on public health programming.
Where did you get your professional start in that field?
My first job after grad school was with Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA). I started there as a dietetic intern during my time at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. I was always interested in the role the private sector plays in the food landscape and the footprint it has at both the national and community level. Once I came on as staff, I led the Healthier Campus Initiative. Through this initiative we worked with college and university partners who made public commitments around their food options, physical activity spaces, and wellness programming, including areas like student food insecurity. At the time, PHA had over 50 campuses participating in the initiative.
In addition to my work on this initiative, I also supported PHA partners who made commitments in other areas like improving the food in the emergency food system pipeline, offering healthier options in convenience stores, and shifting to a healthier product portfolio through reformulation or portfolio expansion. I thoroughly enjoyed my work at PHA but moved on to work on more local initiatives that would increase access to nutrition education and improve food insecurity in Washington, DC.
It seems you’ve made that leap in your role at Giant Foods. How so?
I’m one of the nutritionists on the Healthy Living team at Giant and my work focuses on the Ward 8 community. In 2018, the company built a wellness space in the Ward 8 Giant where I hold nutrition classes and work with other community stakeholders to host additional wellness programming open to the community. I also meet with people individually to discuss their nutrition concerns, lead store tours, and go out into the community to spread nutritional knowledge through events and programming. The pandemic shifted the in-person programming, but all of these resources are still available to customers and community members in the virtual space.
What have been some of the more popular aspects of the programs you’re offering?
One of the more popular programs I am involved with is the Produce Rx Program, in partnership with DC Greens and DC Health. Through this program, participating physicians can write prescriptions for eligible patients to receive $80 in fresh produce each month. I have enjoyed working with participants in the program to learn how to further stretch their dollar in the grocery store as well as better manage their pre-diabetes, diabetes, and/or hypertension.
What’s been the reaction from the community?
Having an RDN in the grocery store is a great community resource, whether you’re looking for just a little inspiration to try something new or have specific questions or concerns about how food impacts your health. The grocery store is where people engage the most with food outside their kitchen and are making important food decisions around their future meals and snacks. Having an expert in the aisles to bounce ideas off of or ask questions has been well received.
Does this role tie into your role with Nutrition On Demand?
I support Cooking Matters, one of Nutrition On Demand’s clients. [Cooking Matters is an organization teaching parents and caregivers with limited food budgets to shop and cook for healthy meals.] One of the audiences for that program is low-income families from diverse cultural backgrounds. I bring additional insight into the content being developed for social media channels for Cooking Matters.
Speaking of diverse audiences, do you feel there is a lack of diversity in the field of dietetics? If so, what do you attribute that to?
There’s definitely a lack of diversity in the profession, with less than three percent of Registered Dietitian Nutritionists identifying as Black, and just over 80 percent being white. That’s a problem because when you’re trying to improve the nutrition of communities across the nation, we have to meet the needs of our diverse nation. It’s important that our field include professionals with different backgrounds and insights to provide culturally inclusive care and content. I partly attribute this lack of diversity to a lack of awareness of the field. For example, look at me. I didn’t even know what a dietitian was until I got to college because it wasn’t a career path I was exposed to. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate school experience, there wasn’t always an opportunity to seek guidance from someone that looked like me or that shared a similar experience. I am so happy there’s great work being done to provide that support to students and increase awareness of the field overall.
What does that support look like?
I serve as a diversity leader for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which aims to increase diversity across our field. Beyond the work being done by the academy, awesome organizations like Diversify Dietetics are forming. Social media has also been a great way spotlight diversity within the field and connect dietitians of color with aspiring students. We’re now more connected than ever before.
What about the connections you’ve made as a dietitian? What’s been most rewarding?
I love the role food and nutrition play in my life and I love even more engaging with people and inspiring them to improve their food choices and honestly just normalize healthy. I like to think I am working as a part of a larger web of dietitians and public health professionals striving to change the culture of health.
—Fred Durso, Jr., is a Nutrition On Demand intern currently pursuing a master’s degree in food and nutrition and the necessary requirements to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Prior to heading back to school, he spent more than a decade as a journalist/communications specialist.