When Clara Rivera was 13 years old, she was diagnosed as severely lactose intolerant. It may seem like a rather common dietary restriction, but for Rivera, it would go on to impact her health in unforeseen ways.
With little guidance from medical experts about how to change her diet, she and her family simply cut out all dairy products – with devasting effects. “I had stunted growth,” Rivera says. “and I fell into a lot of deficiencies, mostly because I didn’t know, we didn’t have that [nutrition] education.”
It was around this time that she found her way into the kitchen to experiment with foods that she could eat. She created dairy-free meals and later branched out making other allergy-friendly and restricted diet foods like gluten-free dishes and sugar-free snacks (such as cookies made with dates in place of cane sugar). She began to relish making everyday foods healthy and learned firsthand the value of educating others about food choices and balanced diets.
She found her calling. “I was destined to be a dietitian before I knew what a dietitian was,” she says.
Today, Rivera is a master’s student in dietetics and nutrition at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. In January, she began an internship at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“It’s really exciting because it’s the largest hospital in South Florida,” Rivera says. “It’s challenging, but exciting. I’ve never worked in a hospital setting, it’s totally new to me. I’m learning a little bit of everything. You really dip your toes in so many aspects of dietetics.”
She was recently awarded a scholarship by the Florida Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (FAND), which she used to help cover the tuition costs of the internship. Rivera, who is a full-time mom, student and research assistant at FIU’s Nutrition Intervention and Community Education (N.I.C.E.) Lab, appreciates a little financial assistance.
“I am so grateful for having the opportunity as a student to be a part of different associations like FAND,” Rivera says. “And more so that they truly care for us and offer these scholarships. I'm honored to have received the Clara Augustine Scholarship from FAND. This scholarship has provided my family a great relief going into the internship.”
At Jackson, Rivera and two other FIU interns are currently working on their food service rotation. They’ve taken several tours of the hospital; have been observing and working on plating food in the kitchen; conducted a plate waste study as well as a budget analysis; shadowed retail managers and the chef; learned how to use the computer software and made work orders; and are planning a themed meal with the hospital. They’ve only been on the internship a few weeks.
Rivera is also learning how the hospital changed its protocols to address COVID-19, even in something seemingly as small as how to organize the food and utensils on a tray. “Basically, they show us, ‘this is how we do it’ and ‘this is how we do it since COVID’.”
She says that seeing the staff’s tenacity in creating new protocols and, in some cases, redesigning their physical spaces at a moment’s notice is inspiring.
“You would think in a massive hospital like Jackson it would be very difficult to quickly adjust, but I’ve talked to so many supervisors and employees. They did adjust. They thought of so many things, and they made it work. They’ve kept the hospital going. I want my brain to work like their brain. One thing I want to take from this internship is that we need to be very adaptable. We can change, and adjust and prepare.”
Currently, Rivera specializes in community nutrition, as she works in Associate Professor Catherine Coccia’s N.I.C.E. Lab. Additionally, Rivera is passionate about giving back and educating children on healthy eating habits – something she would have appreciated as a child.
Through a national, nonprofit called Common Threads, this past summer Rivera worked as a nutrition educator, leading virtual lessons for children about different aspects of nutrition, explaining terms and sharing healthy food recipes.
“Many of the children came from low-income families,” Rivera says of those she taught, “and part of it [the lesson] was about how to make due with what you have access to.
“Information is power,” she says of what she aimed to give the youngsters. “I love that part.”