Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian, investigative nutritionist and award-winning journalist. Her "Food Sleuth" radio interviews, columns and keynotes help consumers "think beyond their plates." Hemmelgarn formerly developed and directed the Nutrition Communications Center at the University of Missouri, where she blazed the trail blending media literacy with nutrition education. Her W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellowship allowed her to connect the dots between food, health and agriculture. Today her work focuses on promoting critical thinking and "food system literacy." Hemmelgarn received a B.S. in Dietetics from Florida State University, completed her dietetic internship through Cornell University, and received a Masters in Human Nutrition from the University of Missouri, Columbia.
As a young girl, Melinda Hemmelgarn often ate at her grandmother’s cozy table in her tiny New York City kitchen. She remembers her grandmother’s words from one of her visits: “It does my heart good to see you eat so well.”
Hemmelgarn reflects, “I had the great fortune of never being hungry or wondering where my next meal was coming from,” but her grandmother, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, had not always been as lucky. “What a blessing, that I was able to take good food for granted.” Today, as a registered dietitian, writer and radio host, her grandmother’s comment remains with her.
“Since those times in my grandmother’s kitchen, I have repeatedly learned that when people have been hungry, they experience food differently. For example, I recall a patient of mine at the Veterans’ Hospital who refused his doctor’s orders to follow a 1200 calorie diet because he had been a prisoner of war and vowed never to be hungry again. Scarcity and hunger, or bad (or good) memories around food influence our relationship with food.”
Hemmelgarn’s parents and grandparents played a large role in shaping her interests and values while she was growing up, and inspired a strong appreciation for social justice that motivates her science-driven advocacy today.
Hemmelgarn’s grandfather, David Karfunkle, was a Work Projects Administration artist. One of his works, painted in 1936, is a mural in the Harlem County Courthouse, titled “The Hoarding of Wealth and the Exploitation of Labor.” “My grandfather died when I was just a baby, but in his spirit I hope to illuminate the human condition and promote both social and environmental justice. I think art, media and storytelling have a key role in teaching science, and influencing public opinion and policies that protect public health and our environment.”
Empowering the public
Recognizing the power of the media to influence food choices and behaviors, and empower consumers, Hemmelgarn founded the Nutrition Communications Center at the University of Missouri. She started writing a weekly newspaper column titled: “Food Sleuth,” which has evolved into other media formats, and served as a conduit for sharing scientific information with the public for over 30 years. She also discovered and developed a passion for media literacy.
A Food and Society Policy Fellowship from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy allowed her to collaborate with seven other Fellows from a variety of backgrounds, and embrace a broader view of nutrition and health that included agriculture and food policy. Since this Fellowship, she has dedicated her career to teaching the public the importance of applying critical thinking skills to media messages about food and farm policy.
Hemmelgarn has learned that it’s not enough to just provide scientific information to the public. “We’re human. We need compelling images and stories that make scientific information come alive, and relatable to our own lives. And we need action steps – what can we do with this information to make a difference?”
She explains, “Consumer advocacy and empowerment is the foundation of my work. I enjoy helping people think critically about the media messages in which we swim.” Today, Hemmelgarn hosts Food Sleuth Radio to help listeners navigate the food system and learn about how farm and food policies impact our environment and public health.
Hemmelgarn also works creatively with her photographer husband on a project called “F.A.R.M.: Food, Art, Revolution, Media - A Focus on Photography to Revitalize Agriculture and Strengthen Democracy.” They combine compelling images with farmers' stories, and contrast food and farming media spin with rural realities. They hope their project will promote science-based, health-promoting food and agricultural policies.
A call for science to drive positive change
For Hemmelgarn, making a difference to improve the quality of people’s lives is the best part of her career.
Hemmelgarn encourages all scientists to be more vocal and creative about the importance of their work. “Look at our environment,” she contends, “We need all hands on deck right now to protect our environment for the health of future generations.”