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Danielle DiCristofano always knew she wanted to work in food. She considered working as a chef, but after a nudge from her parents, preferred a position with insurance benefits. She then considered writing for a food or health and wellness magazine and enrolled at the University of Dayton as a communications major.

“I already knew how to write,” she said. “I either wanted to write about food or learn about it.”

She started off having no idea what a dietitian was, and how much science it would actually be, but decided to switch to dietetics.

“I was definitely thrown for a loop. It was not easy,” she said. “However, dietetics turned out to be for me. I’ve never looked back.”

Now she’s four years in as a dietitian for the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Illinois, a job she also didn’t know existed. DiCristofano follows laws and programs for different facilities about how the children need to be fed and how many calories and nutrients everyone needs. She has training requirements to follow. She makes sure the menus fall under certain guidelines, and creates recipes, which may sound creative and fun at first, but actually is a lot of data entry.

“It’s kind of doing a diet recall for an entire building,” DiCristofano said.  

She works with the medical unit. If a diabetic resident or a kid who has a renal disease is having an issue, she creates a menu for them. She also does a lot of nutrition education consultation with kids. The children she works with are mostly boys, and they have all these questions about protein and getting a larger build.

“I mostly tell them, ‘You guys should worry about other things, let’s send you back to school,’” she said with a laugh. “I’ve also had to tell them that soy milk is not going to give them boobs. They are just really funny.” 

In this exclusive Q&A interview, DiCristofano provides insights into her career trajectory, the challenges she faces in her role and the rewarding aspects of working within a correctional system.

Q. How did you get the job with Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center? 

A. It was sort of an accident. I got into the mental health aspect of food. I wanted to work with eating disorder patients, then I saw three mental-health focused dietetic internships in California. They were paid internships, which is rare. I got a job with the California Department of State Hospitals, which is the psychiatric prison. I lived in Napa, got to be warm and work in mental health. I think that experience made it easier for me to get this job. The hardest part of hiring new staff at a correctional facility is them not being able to deal with a correctional facility. Facility leadership probably said, “she’s not going to be scared.” While I don’t want my patients to be here a long time, I like knowing my patients. Working in a hospital, you may see your patients one time, and never get to work with them again. That’s kind of what appealed to me about working in a detention center.

Q. What do you like about it? 

A. I like that I’m not totally stuck doing just community, just food service or just clinical dietetics. Depending on what the building needs, I’m the only dietitian, so I get to do a little bit of everything. That’s satisfying because I don’t know that I could just do one rotation forever. I also like working for the government because we get a lot of holidays. That’s rare in healthcare too. I also just really like working with the kids. They make me laugh and I get to be creative and be outside when working with them in the garden.

Q. The garden? Tell me about that. 

A. It’s called the Karma Garden. When the pandemic happened, staff would go outside and tend to the garden with the kids. At the facility, kids have time to go outside already, but any extra time there is special. To be in nature instead of inside a building that is really just bricks is definitely more favorable. The kids really liked it and would be tapping on the glass, being like, “When do we get to go back to the garden?” I made sure to keep that program going throughout the pandemic. I’m really glad we got to keep it going in a time when it was really needed. It’s an initiative that I’m proud of.

In the beginning of the year, I have a pod, or unit of 10 kids, pick what they want to grow. They’ll be in charge of an area in the garden. Volunteers come in and talk to them about urban gardening, then have them try it. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. It makes my day. They do the watering, but I have to do some of the grunt work myself, like cutting or weeding. Then at the end, when everything is grown, they get to taste test the foods. Overall, the garden teaches the kids responsibility and gets them outside. It’s a great program.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge for you as a dietitian working in the industry?  

A. I think not a lot of people understand what a dietitian does or fully understand the low pay. We’re working in the same facilities that nurses are working in, typical places to work, and not getting paid enough. One of the perks of working for the government is getting paid what every dietitian should get paid. Collaboration is additionally difficult because I’m trying to do what I know a dietitian does, and other people question that. They think we’re food service directors; we’re not. We didn’t just learn how to write recipes. I think it can just be blurred lines a little bit.

Q. What is one thing you wish you had known before starting your career in dietetics? 

A. Nurses go to less school and they get paid more. I feel like everyone did warn me the pay is not good. I wish I also knew that we have to take more science classes than nurses do, which is crazy. Science was difficult for me when I was in school.

Q. Has there been anything specific that helped you move forward in your role? 

A. One thing I will say that’s been helping me as a dietitian who works alone, is having interns. They keep me updated on trends and new terms, they’re helpful for networking and being a part of the Chicago Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. I get to network. If we come in for volunteer stuff, especially in a big city like this, it makes you feel less alone.

Q. How has Food as Medicine impacted your role, if at all?

A. Not so much in my role right now, but more like when I’m out and people find out I’m a dietitian, then they want to talk about that. Food is nourishment and support, but it’s not medicine. Especially since the pandemic, everyone has been so divided. We still need to take medicine if we need to take medicine; eating good food is just an extra way to address an issue. The residents I work with are teenage boys, they’re not having those conversations yet.

Q. Have any other “hot topics” in the dietetics/nutrition industry impacted the way you do things?

A. Many of the residents are requesting soy milk now because it is more common than it was years ago. The majority of our population is lactose intolerant! The National School Lunch Program rules state that we must provide 8 ounces of milk at breakfast and lunch. We can provide a soy milk alternative if it has the same vitamin D content as regular milk. The problem here is that soy milk is not produced in cartons for individual servings. We can’t pour out hundreds of individual cups of soy milk each day to meet the needs of the residents, so we have to keep providing mostly cow’s milk. I understand how they feel, because I prefer soy milk myself, but there are so many logistical issues people don’t think about in corrections.

Bio:

Danielle DiCristofano, RD, received her bachelor’s degree in dietetics from the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, and is expected to receive her master’s degree in clinical nutrition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison this May. Prior to her current role, she served as a food service and nutrition intern at Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley in Ohio and as a dietetic intern at Napa State Hospital in California. She worked with Dietitians at Home for three months before taking her job as a registered dietitian with the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Illinois, where she’s been for the past four years. Born and raised in Chicago, she currently resides there with her dog.

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