A profound compassion for others informs the work of registered dietitian Shana Patterson, nutrition coordinator for obesity prevention initiatives at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in Denver. “I am deeply driven by the recognition that we are amazing beings,” says Patterson. “Everyone is important. Everyone has purpose, whether they know it or not. I am struck, almost every day, with the knowledge that we have such influence over each other.”
These beliefs influence her career choices and day-to-day work in a big way. “Whether I am considering the feasibility of a grant proposal to fund EBT machines at a farmer’s market, working on a social media campaign for our Smart Meal restaurant initiative, or giving a training to a group of child care providers, I ask: Will this make a positive impact? Is there one thing I can do, with my limited realm of control, to fill a gap?”
Raised on a self-sustaining farm in a small Czech community in Texas, Patterson says nutrition was her natural career path. “ I grew up with a first-hand knowledge of my connection to the origins of my food,” she says. “I also believe that food, and specifically growing food, has a powerful community connection.”
One element that attracted Patterson to the field of dietetics was that it provides an opportunity to focus on an individual or a family, or to expand to entire populations. “Nutrition and food speaks to something deep within a person,” Patterson says. “It’s very personal. As an RD, I have the opportunity to be invited into this kind of sacred place in the lives of others. It’s a humble honor that I am grateful to have.”
In 2010, Patterson traveled to Haiti with the International Medical Corps, distributing high-energy biscuits and supplementation foods to children’s homes in Port-Au-Prince to prevent malnutrition after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Upon arrival, she received four things: Money from a World Health Organization grant, contact persons for UNICEF and the United Nations World Food Programme (which provided the emergency supplemental food), a Haitian driver and “a very draft, very unconfirmed list of the potential addresses where 350 orphanages could be—if they were still standing. The rest was my responsibility,” says Patterson.
She helped developed the program distribution process and ordering system, in addition to training volunteers and performing? assessments to identify malnutrition. “I think I can safely say pulling all of that together in less than 30 hours was the most intense, detailed work I've ever done,” Patterson says of the experience. “It is astonishing that such a small group of people can literally save thousands of people.”