Years back, I moved to the United States from my home country, Argentina, and volunteered in a Salvation Army clinic. Today, I’m back home and have hosted dietetics students as they come to visit. From these experiences, I believe food and nutrition experts are very well equipped to spread good nutrition advice and help people around the world.
Going abroad as a RDN can be an incredible way to immerse yourself into a foreign culture, contribute to a local population’s health and develop personal and professional skills such as resilience, dedication, problem-solving, cultural sensitivity and foreign language proficiency.
Explore International Volunteer Opportunities
If you Google “volunteering nutrition programs abroad,” you will see more than a million hits. There are many opportunities for those interested in “voluntourism” — a portmanteau of “volunteer” and “tourism.” Before you sign up, it is essential that you research these travel companies very carefully. If voluntourism programs are not carefully managed, they may lead to cross-cultural misunderstanding and the reinforcement of cultural stereotypes. Make sure that projects are developed with the local population so that volunteers are involved in work that does not undermine the value of local staff. Projects should not be imposed on host communities and volunteers should be matched to projects according to their existing skills. For instance, you may need intermediate to advanced foreign language skills and to be familiar with the food culture of your destination. (See the Academy’s e-book Cultural Competency for Nutrition Professionals for more.)
The International Affiliate of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has more than 1,000 members living in more than 70 countries. Members are U.S. registered dietitian nutritionists and qualified food and nutrition professionals from the international dietetics community. Each country has a representative and it is strongly recommended that you contact the host country rep before traveling. Country reps (I am the co-representative for Argentina) are like dietetic ambassadors and can provide information about the work and education of local dietitians, nutrition problems, local food policies and educational opportunities. If you are an Academy member and belong to another affiliate, you can become an International Affiliate “supporter” and enjoy a variety of resources about international issues.
You Can Even Help without Leaving Home (or Needing a Passport)
Even without traveling, you can connect with international dietetics and nutrition groups through the Internet. The fight against global nutrition issues — including malnutrition, obesity, food sustainability and poor access to healthy foods — needs the expertise of RDNs. By collaborating with local food and nutrition experts on strategies to tackle these problems, you will empower our profession globally and improve the nutrition of the people we serve.