We often meet people who consider themselves ‘conscious eaters,’ but rarely do we meet someone whose passion is converting others. In her own personal effort to address America’s obesity issues, Registered Dietitian Sarah Gaete is teaching the value of nutrition to as many people as she can. She is passionate about getting others to make healthier choices; and she is making a difference here in the Coachella Valley.
Gaete has been a Registered Dietitian for 25 years and for the past 10 has taught general nutrition at College of the Desert. Her first job as a hospital RD solidified her desire to see more people get well. “Teaching is a way for me to reach large numbers of people and to really make a difference. I have a captive audience for 16 weeks and thus, the opportunity to change behaviors, and to change lives.”
Gaete’s takes her job personally and gives extra attention to every student in her class who expresses a desire to change. 17-year old Kendel Garcia of La Quinta took Gaete’s class this past semester. “Sarah was more than just a teacher. She cared about us individually and taught each of us what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong.” Kendel was a competitive swimmer who stopped competing, but hadn’t changed her diet. Gaete helped her understand the changes she needed to make and why. At the end of the semester, Kendel decided to start training again and Gaete helped her formulate a new dietary plan. “She made me understand what foods would help me perform best and what I needed for training. She totally cared about me, what I was eating, and how it affected my body.”
Throughout her career, Gaete has worked on nutrition education projects with the County’s Department of Health including HEALnet, a Coachella Valley community coalition for obesity prevention; and CVEP Health Industry Council’s Nutrition Work Group, which creates opportunity for youth to aspire and grow into nutrition-related professions.
In 2009, she created the ‘Champions for Change’ program for Riverside County which trained people and students about the importance of eating healthy. These champions would then reach out to their communities (schools, neighborhoods, churches, etc.) to further spread the message. The County’s goal was to train 15 champions, but Sarah trained 265. The program was cut due to government funding, but the concept and success stayed with her – give average people the tools to learn themselves, and then to teach others within their inner circles. “There aren’t enough dieticians in the world to effectively spread the word on healthy eating, and doctors don’t have the time,” states Gaete. When her friend and neighbor, Jeralyn Brossfield, MD, introduced her to Take Shape for Life, it clicked. Their coaching and educational services have helped hundreds in the Valley change their lifestyles and lose thousands of pounds collectively. She became a Certified Health Coach and is passionate about the program’s primary focus: teaching people healthy eating habits.
“Sarah’s professional projects and personal commitment to changing lives has had deep and lasting impacts in our county and region,” says Donna Sturgeon, the Director of Work Based Learning Programs at CVEP. “She is the most passionate, dedicated nutrition professional in our valley and a true leader – and a foremost change agent – in her work regionally.”
Gaete combines her class and community outreach by incorporating a food insecurity assignment into her curriculum. “I thought this would be a great way to get students out of their own heads – and their own little world – to become aware of the problems in the community.” Students do four hours of service at the location of their choice such as FIND Food Bank or Coachella Valley Mission. They write a follow-up paper about their experience and what they learned about hunger and obesity in our community.
With the current focus on health care, she has definitely seen an increase in interest in her class which maxes out at 50 students. This increase thrills her as much as seeing many of her students transform through the semester as they become conscious eaters and adopt healthier habits. Recently she was approached by a student who asked if she remembered him. Not only did she remember him, she recalled that he sat in the back, ate three fast food meals a day, and worked at In & Out Burger. He also changed his habits during her class and lost 40 pounds. “I want to thank you for changing my life,” he said. “I am leaving for Camp Pendleton this weekend and have lost a total of 90 pounds. I would not have been able to do this if it weren’t for you.”
“I say this all the time,” concludes Gaete, “As a society, we don’t value the cost of being healthy. We value our data packages and big screen TV’s. And we are paying the price for it now. Health care costs are going up, and they will go up the most for those who are least healthy. We need more champions out there promoting the value of nutrition, and it starts with each one of us making healthier choices.”