Say Hello to Canadian Dietitians, Some of Your New Best Friends

Dietitian Heidi Pola stands with Adrienne Tsandelis, a student volunteer.

You can’t be everywhere at once. You can‘t be in the field, in the barn, on the road and, at the same time, talking face to face to consumers.

You need some help, some friends.

And more and more, those friends include professionals in related fields, such as butchers, retailers and dietitians.

Dietitians’ role is growing as consumers increasingly ask questions about food. Dietitians went to school to understand it, know its nutritional value and know how it affects people – or how it doesn’t.

nutritionist Heidi Pola and kids at Zehr's, learning about planting vegetables.

Dietitian Heidi Pola and kids at Zehr’s, learning about planting vegetables.

That struck me when I spoke this week to Heidi Pola, one of 75 registered dietitians working for Loblaw…not at the company’s headquarters, but rather, at Zehrs stores throughout Ontario and elsewhere.

She and her colleagues are on the front lines when it comes to food and consumers. It’s they who, day after day, face questions — some detailed, some fearful, some very confused — about what Canadian farmers grow.

And the answers they give have a lot to do with what consumers buy…not only at Loblaw’s.

If you believe in the intrinsic goodness of Canadian farm products and food, it’s no stretch to see dietitians as friends.

After all, when it comes to food, they’re driven by the some of the same things as farmers, such as truth and nutrition. That’s what Pola, a Stratford native and 2015 University of Guelph master’s degree graduate in applied nutrition, tries to convey everyday on the job, which she splits between two Zehrs stores in Kitchener.

“Dietitians play a role in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers, about food and nutrition,” she says.

From her experience, consumers typically ask about three things: the benefits of local food, organic versus conventional food, and how to prepare food.

Each matter, and every answer she utters about them, is important to Canadian farmers. Fortunately, truth prevails, and the answers she gives are pretty supportive.

First, when it comes to local, she’s a big fan. At peak production season, close to half of the produce in her stores is Canadian grown.

“When produce is harvested, it’s meant to be enjoyed right away,” she says. “There’s some value knowing the food is from close to home.”

As far as organic versus conventional food, she takes a nutritional rather than a philosophical approach.

And nutritionally, she says, there’s no difference. One is not better, or worse, than the other. “I say it’s a personal choice,” she says. “It may be a matter of what people can afford. But as a dietitian, I’m a fruit and vegetable ambassador. I’d rather see consumers buy conventional produce than not buy organic produce because they can’t afford it.”

And what about GMOs?

“I am not concerned about GMOs,” she tells people. “The government makes sure they’re regulated. They’re considered safe.”

And the final question: What do I do with food once I get it home?

For many, the answer is “nothing.” About 20 per cent of what we buy ends up as waste. But preparation is more a matter for instructors in Zehrs cooking classes. Pola says that’s where her initial interest in food was sparked, watching chocolate ganache being made at a children’s cooking class at her hometown Zehrs. That led to more interest in the nutritional aspect of food, and to her career.

It’s becoming a popular one, as public interest has grown. Zehrs started an in-store dietitian program in 2011 with five dieticians; now, that number has mushroomed. Last week, nutritionists were on hand as the company put a 38-foot greenhouse on the road — with stops in Guelph, Kitchener and Cambridge, among others — to teach customers about what some fruit and vegetables looks like growing, such as cucumbers and tomatoes.

If you have a garden, you take this stuff for granted.

But these days, more people don’t have gardens, than do.

And the more they learn about food from professionals such as farmers’ new best friend Pola, the better.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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