Learning About Cultural Humility in the Food System with Denine Rogers

Learn more about how to practice cultural humility in the food system in Sharon Palmer’s Live Chat with expert Denine Rogers.

Cultural humility goes way beyond just understanding the various features of cultural food traditions—it is an ongoing process of self-reflection in order to truly honor and respect another culture. Expert Denine Rogers weighs in on this important topic in Sharon Palmer’s Live Chat.

I’m so excited to have fellow dietitian Denine Rogers here with me today on my Live Chat, as we talk about cultural humility in the food system. Denine is the owner of Living Healthy, a private practice Integrative & Functional Nutrition and Wellness Consulting Business in Douglasville, Georgia. She is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition from Howard University, a Master’s Degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and a graduate certificate in Herbal Medicine at American College of Health Sciences. Denine works full-time as a Telemedicine Nutritional Consultant with Anthem and is a Co-Chair of the Anthem e-Commerce Committee of APEX (African American Professional Exchange). She is a leader in the diversity movement in the field of nutrition, as the Chair of NOBIDAN (National Organization of Blacks in Dietetics and Nutrition). She is also a Georgia Volunteer Master Gardener who teaches about herbs, gardening, and nutrition to the Douglas County local community.

Welcome, Denine!

Things You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • What is cultural humility, and why is it so important in food systems.
  • What are the compelling issues on diversity in the food and nutrition world today.
  • How can you practice cultural humility in your everyday live and practice.
  • Which tips you can adopt for being anti-racist and culturally humble in the food system.

Denine’s Favorite Resources:

Denine and I sat down together to talk about cultural humility in the food system. Check out our Live Chat below.

Check out the written interview of our Live Chat below.

Sharon: Hi everyone, thank you for joining me for my live chat, I am really excited to be talking to my amazing guest and fellow dietitian nutrition expert Denine Rogers. We are going to be talking about this important subject of cultural humility in the food system so welcome, thank you so much for joining me. 

Denine: Thank you, appreciate you having me here and thank you so much for the opportunity to talk.

Sharon: Yes, just wonderful. I so appreciate your taking the time to talk to us today. So just a little bit about her, Denine is a fellow dietitian and owner of Healthy Living, a private practice integrative functional medicine and nutrition counseling business that is located in Douglasville, Georgia. She is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and she has her BS degree in Clinical Nutrition from Howard University and a Master’s degree in Complementary and Alternative Nutrition, and a graduate certificate in Herbal Medicine at the American College of Health Sciences. She works full time as a telemedical nutrition consultative at Anthem and is the Co-Chair of the Anthem E-commerce committee of APEX. She is a leader in the diversity movement in the field of nutrition and is a chair for NOBIDAN which is the National Organization of Blacks in Dietetics and Nutrition. Plus, after all of that she is a master gardener in her community and she teaches people in her community about gardening and herbs—all the things that I care so much about too, so welcome Denine! Thank you so much for being here. I wanted to kick off our conversation and let you give us a chance to learn about how you were attracted to the field of dietetics?

Denine: It happened all the way back in high school. I had an incredible opportunity in the summertime to be an intern for General Foods, which is now Kraft General Foods. Where I live in New York, they had an opportunity for students that had diverse backgrounds to come for the summer. I worked in the consumer affairs department and in the food test kitchen. From there I was able to decide, well you know I didn’t even know nutrition was like this, or that dietitians could do this kind of work. I met corporate dietitians which kind of made me very interested in the field. As a corporate dietitian, a lot of the times they have a chance to answer questions from consumers on products and I like how they did focus groups on what products their consumer wanted. Also, they wrote articles and created recipes. The test kitchen is great because if you have not eaten you can eat some test food, sometimes it’s really good, other times its really bad.  It really helped me learn more about nutrition and become a dietetic. My boss at that time was one of the first black presidents at Kraft Foods. She kept me on all the way through college and I really appreciate her so much. She retired, but she has been a really big inspiration for me, she told me, why not go into nutrition? I said, you’re not a dietitian, you are an MBA, and she said well it’s something that you are going to get into, there might be something and then she allowed the local paper to interview me and I was able to make my favorite brownies. They were too high in fat, but it just gave me a chance to really look in the field that I never knew existed and then I went for my associates degree in nutrition in Westchester county, what was basically a community college, then I transferred to Howard University. It gave me a chance to see many different areas in the field. 

Sharon: Wow, that is amazing, you know, there are so many incredible people out there that don’t realize the influence they have to change people’s lives, your mentor was an example like that. I had someone like that in my career, a professor who just took me under her wing and you know I was discouraged in college, at one point I dropped out and if it were not for her taking the time to encourage me, I might not have finished. You know, I went back and finished my degree, so there they are just amazing people that don’t even appreciate how valuable they are. I so appreciate you sharing that story, and I also think it’s interesting because I think a lot of people don’t even know what all we can do in dietetics. I think a lot of people think RDs only work in a hospital, which most of them do. But RDs in the US do a lot of different things. They work in marketing, sustainable food systems, media, different types of counseling, different specialties. I think it’s interesting to show all the opportunities for RDs. We have a lot of dietitians that follow us, but we also have people that are interested in healthy eating. We have people in the food world following us, and dietitians out in the U.S. do a lot of things, they work with sustainable food systems, they work in marketing, they write, they do media, they have different specialties.  So, I think it’s interesting to show all the different opportunities that there are for dietitians in the country, which is exciting. I wanted to ask you about your personal nutrition perspective, you understand alternative medicine and herbal medicine, so could you tell us about what your optimal nutrition philosophy?

Denine: Well, my optimal one is that I try to look at myself as a whole person. If I am feeling down and I run for a cookie, why am I running for a cookie? I believe that food is not just something to eat and digest, but it should be a mind, body experience. When I meet with people, I say think of food as how it will affect your mind, your lifestyle, your body. With herbals I look at herbs for cooking, like turmeric that can help with GI symptoms. If my stomach is feeling messed up, I will put that in my food. Also, I look at foods that can pick me up, again with turmeric I make golden milk and that helps out with my stomach and every other part of my body. I use food to nourish my body and how it will affect my body as a whole. Food is a mind, body, spiritual experience and it deals with your lifestyle. If you are a person who is always on the run, you want take time to eat, to sit down meditate and slow down to eat. Let your mind know it’s time to eat, then you are full, so you don’t go back for second or thirds or watching in from to the TV. So, my philosophy with that is more of a lifestyle type of thing, which is kind of what some people say that’s kind of you know the way off the left field type of way. But it works out for me, because I feel like food is very ingrained in our lifestyle, it is whenever we see friends the first thing we do is go is to a restaurant. Or you know we say okay let’s go and eat instead of like maybe going for a walk or let’s go and eat something quick so then we can get through the day and then we know that we have problems sleeping or having GI problems or whatever issues that we may have so, that’s my type of personal philosophy with food. 

Traditional vegetables found in a Tokyo, Japan supermarket.

Sharon: I think it’s great because it’s not just nutrients, in the nutrition world sometimes we get so focused on the fiber, the vitamins, the protein, and forget about the whole person, the food culture and about choices. What makes people feel good and you know there are a lot of issues in that area. More people are interested in learning about the whole body and spirit. Eating and nutrition, so I really think that is important, you include that in your practice. So I appreciate that and you know I love turmeric. I use it everyday and you know there is research that shows that it reduces inflammation and I find that when I take it helps me you know just with all the little aches and pains, you know the inflammation. So I do think there is a place, I drink chamomile tea before bed because it helps me sleep well and there is research on that right, so I do the things that we can do within our diet and wellness, so I appreciate that. So I just want to get right into it, some of it we are just going to plunge on in, first of all talking a little bit about diversity and I wanted to ask you what are some of the big compelling issues when it comes to diversity in the nutrition world? I know that is a huge topic, maybe you could just tell us what you think are some of the biggest issues and just kick this whole topic off.

Denine: Well it’s funny you brought that up, because we were talking about it at a symposium and we were talking about that, and I said you know what I think that cultural appropriation is the biggest topics particularly in the food industry so like when people think of Mexican food as Taco Bel. They really want to know what authentic Mexican food is, they need to go to an authentic Mexican restaurant. I will just give a definition of cultural appropriation, it is the adoption of an element or elements of one person’s cultural identity and calling it your own, when it is not. So basically you are like cherry picking what you want from that specific culture and saying that is yours. When it is not yours, it was the other person’s culture. It is using it as your own interest, so one thing is that what people should do instead of cultural appropriation is do cultural appreciation and give appreciation to the people who created that cuisine or that culture. Cultural appreciation is when you seek to learn about another culture to broader your perspective, while cultural appropriation is just taking it. I think that has been huge in the food industry area; same thing with everybody like Japanese food, Italian food, I mean people just take one aspect and say that well this is this, and we are the ones who started it when it actuality it is not that at all.

Sharon: I appreciate you bringing that up. I feel like that’s one of the biggest areas that it’s just so obvious, but yet you know I am guilty of doing it, we have been doing it for a long time.  Many of us have in the food world, as a writer, and a blogger, and a plant-based cooking expert, I have learned a lot about the process and I am working on educating myself to do better. But this really is so widespread, don’t you think it is everywhere in the food world?

Denine: Oh, it is. There is a movement now where people are going to food companies and saying hey you need to appreciate where this specific food item is coming from. Give the credit to those you did it in the first place. And if you even say well you know this has been for thousands of years, we will put that money back into that specific community or culture, don’t say that is okay. All throughout my life I have been interested in eating a specific dish, and saying that, okay, I am the one who’s going to say this is my business and I am going to say it is my own, why not put that money that you make back into the community and tell them this is where the cuisine started, this is the community? It leaves that appreciation for what they have done. I think that is very important. It’s so rapid now where people are boycotting companies for doing it.

Sharon: Yeah and I think it is there in the food industry, we see many examples and they are actually making changes; I mean there are a lot more that needs to happen, but we actually have these high profile changes that are happening, and then I think out in the food world, like as dietitians who are counseling people or creating materials, I create recipes and cookbooks, I have a blog, and other people who are out there working in the food world; and there is just so much of it that has been going on. I guess one of the things that I would have a question about is like, do you have tips for how to do better? You know, I want to celebrate food cultures and I think that is a good thing, but there is a fine line between celebrating it and not practicing humility.  Where is that line ad how to not cross over it?

Denine: Well, the first thing is knowing what cultural humility is, which involves you entering a relationship with another person with the intent of honoring their beliefs and customs. This is an ongoing process that is continuous, a lifelong thing that you have to do is self-exploration within yourself critiquing yourself, and knowing if you are giving that homage to that person and what they have done. Understanding the willingness to learn from others, because it you are not willing to learn from others then you cannot even go into cultural humility. It is a lot of self-exploration and critiquing yourself and a willingness to learn from others. Another thing is that if you do a recipe you found out that it is based on a specific culture, you can say this is the recipe but here is the culture that it was inspired from and bring someone from that culture to explain the story. It allows people to tell their story and it can give people an understanding of why it is important to give credit when it is due and reminder that this person is also a person. You also have to give empathy for that person and the culture they are coming from. It’s not to degrade them from their culture but lifting them up.

Sharon: I love how you explained that, in our world of dietitians we have a lot of emphasis on cultural competency, now we are moving on. Moving beyond just cultural competency, it’s now that we actually have to have the humility part. So I am glad that you are explaining that because it can be hard to grasp in life experiences. Talk about it’s a lifelong process of reflection and understanding and listening and it’s not just a one-time fix and I have found that in my work when I go back and look at something about ten years ago, I am like, why did I just say? A year ago I wrote it and thought, oh I did okay, but I look at it a year later and it’s like, no I could have done better. So, it’s for me, one of those things I am trying to do and still have a lot of work to do in this area. I do love food culture, I talk about plant-based foods from around the world, and I have traveled all over the world but that doesn’t make me an expert in somebody else’s food culture. So I have to be careful and lift people up so what I’m trying to do is when I write about food in Thailand, I reference my favorite people who are making food or are from Thailand. For me that’s one thing I have been trying to do, but also I provide more history and background. Do you have any more tips on how to put this in practice or any other specific things we could be looking at, maybe some pitfalls that we are doing when it comes to not being humble to all of these food culture issues?

Denine: I think that to treat the person how they want to be treated is great, and it is great that you refence people from other cultures for a recipe. I am still trying to learn that if I reference something, what culture is that from and try to include that person from that culture for anything that I write and say. I have to remember that person is unique and different. I think that is one thing we have to do and speak up on, as RDs we need to learn about other people’s cultures. Do you really know that person as a person, which is where the culture comes in to play? Look for the positive and not always look at the negative. We don’t look at the positive sense of why this culture is the way it is and why these beliefs are magnificent. I’ll never forget that a doctor was upset that a patient was looking down, and the doctor was really angry, but in that culture a woman or a man is not allowed to look up or look directly in the face of someone who is superior. So that is where cultural competency is good, but the next step is cultural humility and then now there is cultural comp-humility. Competency and humility is combined together to learn more about that person. You need both of them together, you need to learn about the person’s culture then have humility about that person’s culture. They call it comp-humility because it is the combination of both. You have to learn about the person’s culture, and then you also have to have humility based on that culture, so even though you might see yourself as an expert in Ethiopian culture and food, but you don’t understand why people don’t use utensils or why families eat together and that is where cultural humility comes into play.

At a farmers market near Bangkok, Thailand.

Sharon: I haven’t heard about that, but it makes sense, it’s the blending of those. That is a great example. I think it is so important for us to learn more. I like the whole aspect of cultural celebration, because I think that I am then in the right zone, but it’s then taking having the humility and making sure that I am providing information back to that original culture and highlighting that culture, I think it’s really important. So, can you think of other pitfalls or other examples?

Denine: One example is that one person should not represent one whole person as a culture. As you know, the US has a variety of cultures and races but thinking that one person will represent and recognize and thinking they are all the same about that that culture is not correct. Dealing with culture is very important to be very sensitive. It’s important to be responsive to cultural pluralism, which is when you think that one specific person is not going to represent that specific background. Even though I do come from a Western background and then also I am originally from the North, when I came to move to the South, I was not prepared to learn more about my own culture within our own race, which is Southern cuisine. So when I saw grits I thought it was plaster, mind you as a food service manager at a major hospital and when I saw it going down the line I started getting mad and I said why are you guys serving them plaster, this is terrible.  And they would just get bugged out laughing at me and they said, this is grits. So my father’s family migrated from the South to the North to find better work and to get away from Jim Crow, but I didn’t know what the South was. I didn’t know anything about Southern cuisine, I didn’t know anything about that until I started to work in the South and then I realized, wow you know what there are more cultures. There are more cultures within my own race that I didn’t even know, I wasn’t that in tune with it, it’s interesting that sometimes we think that one person represents a whole race but there are so many different cultures within that race. There was this one girl who was African Latino, and a teacher put her on the spot because they were talking about African American culture, but that girl said she did not know about that culture because she is African Latino.

Sharon: That is a great point. Sometimes we make these generalizations, like Asian food, when there are so many countries in Asia. How can we say something so generic, as that is in the vein of thinking that we need to be more mindful of different cultures?

Denine: I think so, it’s time to indulge and think about those specific cultures and bring about different aspects. A lot of cultures might be really similar, but what makes them so different and unique?

Sharon: Yes and I love what you also said about even people within certain cultures could have microcultures. My husband is from Sweden and his whole family lives there and I catch myself making generalizations about Swedish food culture when I’m only seeing his family’s food from one region. I am reminded that is what his family does here. We see this in America, I mean we have different stereotypes in America, like we only eat junk food all the time, but not everyone eats that way. It’s interesting to look beyond these stereotypes to understand the food culture so much. I think what’s beautiful in America is having such a diverse culture and surrounded by so many people from all over the world, I think it’s such as great thing to celebrate. And you know you touched on this too, it’s like it gives us an opportunity when I am writing about a food, like I like to cook with tofu, that is an example of a time, like hey, let’s get into the history of tofu, where did it originate, how was that an important part of the diet, and how did it evolve? So I think there are a lot of times that we can actually kind of raise these foods up that provide more education. What other opportunities do we have in this food world to move toward cultural comp-humility?

Denine: There is an acronym called ASSES. A for ask questions, ask open ended questions about someone’s culture, what makes you so different, what about your background makes you so different. I think that might make someone more open to explain their background.  The S is Seek self-awareness, be aware of what you say, don’t clump everyone together. S is Suspending judgement of another person, which is important because we all have implicit biases. We are taught to think it might not be that way, so it’s there to suspend judgement. The E is for Expressing kindness and appreciate the person you are taking too. Have compassion for what they are going through on the daily basis, they might be discriminated on a daily basis. I may not know what you are going through. S is to Support in a safe environment. Start when the person is comfortable to start talking to you. Some people that are silent are not ignoring you but are thinking.

Food vendor at a public market in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Sharon: Those are all great thoughts to really mull over.  I really appreciate that, and it made me think of one more thing, we make judgments if another food from a culture is healthy or we are always trying to change it, like eat like this, where cultural foods could be healthy. You know all these things that we buy at Whole Foods and we spend all this money and are patting ourselves on the back for being so healthy, but these are ancient foods. In fact, in California where I live, chia seeds have been grown wild here, I could forage it, this is a native American power food and yet we kind of want to write about it like we invented it or something like we discovered it.  So I don’t know if you have any points and also adding to that there is an idea that we created these superfoods that we buy but these are ancient foods. But yet we write like we invented it, those are two separate issues, but do you have any advice?

Denine: I agree with you, definitely because the more we learn about our traditional foods we are learning we had it good back then but are not giving credit for where it is coming from. It’s funny because myself and other coworkers gave a presentation for African Plates and took information from Oldways, we didn’t realize that some of the foods that were not indigenous from this food were carried over from the slave trade so it’s interesting where food comes form.  Some ask what the African diet is, and it’s mainly plants, you realize that it’s more plant-based food and a healthy diet. They did a study with people from Georgia and Cape Town, South Africa and switched their diet. Come to find out that the South Africans who ate the soul food had heart disease and bladder cancer. The people from Georgia had the diet that helped with their heart disease and cancer. It’s interesting that now more cultures are learning where their food culture came from, and learning more about themselves and appreciating their culture.

Sharon: We need to put more value on this traditional knowledge and not Western or academic knowledge, but also value these old foodways that have been passed down through generations. You are probably interested in that area too, I know with your background in alternative and holistic nutrition and medicine. 

Denine: I am very much interested, because we learned about the regions and why some dishes are the way they are. More animal dishes are from regions close to the mountain or desert land areas, there is no such thing as an African cuisine but every country within Africa has their own cuisine. I’m trying to learn and write something about that, regions, and cuisine and learning about specific foods, like ancient grains. Why is a specific grain like this, why was a grain used like this?

Sharon: I love that, I would love to read anything about that. Denine has shared her recipe with us for Ratatouille with Lentils. I just wanted to thank you so much.  This has been such an interesting conversation, I think we could talk about this forever. We just scratched the surface and again I will have all of her resources linked below.

Denine: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it, I really enjoyed myself and also just will let you know that for those are going to the Todays Dietitian Symposium, I will be doing a speech on cultural humility so a lot of the stuff you learn today is going to be even more.

Denine shared one of her favorite plant-based recipe with us—her Ratatouille with Lentils.

Ratatouille with Lentils

1 cup dry lentils, rinsed and drained
1 small eggplant (12 ounces), peeled and cubed
2 (14.5-ounce) cans diced tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano, undrained
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
2 medium yellow summer squash and/or zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 medium red sweet pepper, seeded and chopped
½ cup water
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a 3 1/2- or 4-quart slow cooker, combine lentils, eggplant, undrained tomatoes, onions, summer squash, sweet pepper, water and black pepper.

Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 8 to 9 hours or on high-heat setting for 4 to 4 1/2 hours.

Makes 6 servings

About Denine Rogers
Denine Rogers, MS, RDN, LD, FAND is an Integrative & Functional Registered Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist, and owner of Living Healthy – a private practice Integrative & Functional Nutrition and Wellness Consulting Business in Douglasville, Georgia. She is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition from Howard University and a Masters Degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the graduate certificate in Herbal Medicine at American College of Health Sciences. Ms. Rogers works full-time as a Telemedicine Nutritional Consultant with Anthem and is a Co Chair of the Anthem e-Commerce Committee of APEX (African American Professional Exchange). Ms. Rogers is the current Chair of NOBIDAN – National Organization of Blacks in Dietetics and Nutrition. In 2018 Ms. Rogers was selected as one of the Top Ten Dietitians in the Nation in the Today’s Dietitian Magazine. Ms. Rogers is also a Georgia Volunteer Master Gardener who teaches about herbs, gardening, and nutrition to the Douglas County local communities, schools, social and civic groups and writes for the local Sentinel Douglas County Newspaper. In addition to all of Denine’s passionate pursuits, she enjoys spending time with her husband and three very active black labs dogs.

For more of Sharon’s Live Chats with experts, check out the following:

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