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U. dietitian Mirota seeks to inspire healthy eating habits on campus

Campus Wellness Dietitian Melissa Mirota seeks to help the University community make healthy diet choices as a food consultant across dining halls.

Since she joined the University’s campus dining staff in 2014, Mirota has worked with the dining staff to develop menus and has been in charge with activity tables and food allergy programs.

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Mirota’s job involves working with dining staff todesign and finalizecampus dining menus that adhere to the“Culinary Principles,” a criteria developed by the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health to encourage healthy and sustainable eating.

“The nutrition education that I do is based off of the culinary principles,” she explained. “I try to get people to incorporate more vegetables into their meals."

Mirota said that her favorite part about her job is running the activity tables in the dining halls, where she gets to interact with students and faculty.

“I love discussing nutrition and health with students and faculty,” Mirota said. “It’s cool to see students come up to me with questions about how to eat and what to eat.”

Mirota also noted that often, there's a need for a balance between taste and nutrition. However, students can fine-tune their appetite to appreciate dining hall foods better.

"We can basically re-wire our taste buds to appreciate the deliciousness of meals like fresh acorn squash topped with nutmeg... for example our taste buds will appreciate the flavor of cinnamon atop a bowl of oatmeal, or Butler-Wilson's vegan porridge more if we eat less sugary cereal," she explained.

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Mirota also runs activity tables in the University’s retail dining locations, such as the Chemistry CaFe in the Frick Chemistry Laboratory, as well as administrative buildings located off campus.

Haneef noted that Mirota ran an activity table dedicated to carrots in January, and an earlier one dedicated to making guacamole during Latin heritage month.

“She makes a side item that is nutrition dense into something fun and inspiring for all of us,” Haneef said.

Furthermore, Mirota runs a food allergy program where she makes sure those with allergies know what the foods being served contain, and also provides advice to athletes on healthy and energizing snacks.

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“I encourage [students] to snack on ‘real foods,’ which are foods with one ingredient or less, like carrots,” Mirota said. “You’ll have a better feeling of fullness than if you eat something that is more processed.”

Surprisingly, Mirota didn’t initially intend to pursue a career in dietetics. She received her first bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in religion from Rutgers University in 2006.

“I was interested in studying other religions, and I had a particular interest in studying Rumi and Sufism,” Mirota said.

Mirota originally thought about attending law school and then working on Capitol Hill, but then decided against it. Upon graduating, she joined Hunterdon Prevention Resources, a New Jersey nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of alcohol, drug abuse, and bullying, as a REBEL coordinator. REBEL is a youth-led tobacco prevention program. She became its Director of Community Programs in 2007, and as director, was in charge of working on the program’s budget, and negotiated vendor rates with suppliers. She also developed several promotional programs, such as mobilizing volunteer efforts and designing fundraiser journals.

“I primarily worked with high school youth in tobacco cessation programs, and conducted general prevention programs in the local high schools and elementary schools,” Mirota said.

In 2008, Mirota started working for Ridgewells Inc., a catering company in the Washington, DC region. There, she took charge of catering for thirty corporate suites for the Washington Redskins. While in Washington, she was also an accounting assistant for the Southern States Ball and Staff Ball at President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Event in 2009.

“I helped put out the hors d’oeuvres for the President, which I thought was pretty memorable,” Mirota said.

?Ridgewells' Chief Executive Officer Susan Lacz said that Mirota was a great addition to the staff, and was very pleasant and worked well with her colleagues. She also noted that Mirota's qualities made her suitable to pursue a career in dietetics.
"?She was hardworking and well-liked, and we were sorry to see her go back to New Jersey," Lacz said.
Mirota said that despite the regalia of working for the President, she felt a desire to go back to a career where she could help people, but didn’t want to pursue the social worker path.

One day, when she was leaving a metro station in Washington, she saw an advertisement for a 16 week-long vegan diet study of how diet choices influence skin health. As part of the study, she met with dietitians and nutritionists, and eventually became interested in their work, she explained.

“I thought this was a nice hybrid, because I’ve always liked food, and I appreciated the idea of eating for your health,” she said.

The dietitians and nutritionists Mirota met encouraged her to return to school and become a registered dietitian. In 2009, Mirota started pursuing a degree in nutritional sciences and dietetics at Rutgers in 2009.

Rutgers University Dietetics Instructor Barbara Tangel said that Mirota worked well with others in her class, and highlighted her non-traditional background.

“It was a real turnaround for her to go from theology and philosophy to the hard sciences,” Tangel said.

Rutgers University Nutritional Sciences Professor Sue Shapses explained that since Mirota was older than the other students in the program, she was more mature and proactive, and demonstrated great leadership skills.

“She reached out to me multiple times to conduct research with me in the New Jersey Obesity Group,” Shapses said. “She showed she was truly committed to helping out with something.”

In the New Jersey Obesity Group, Mirota served as the editor of an educational booklet on patient summaries that was distributed to local hospitals.She also conducted research in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, where she surveyed physical activity in low-income populations. Specifically, she studied individuals who participated in the Expanded Food and Nutrition Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education.

“I would ask the participants questions about their diet and the availability of specific foods,” Mirota explained.

She also served as a Nutrition Health Educator for Rutgers, where she visited fifth-grade health classes in Bound Brook, New Jersey to teach the students how to build strong bones.

“We were concerned that the students weren’t getting enough calcium in their diet,” she said. “I told the kids which foods were high in calcium and how their families could get affordable options.”

Over the summer of 2011, she conducted research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and did her clinical rotation at Georgetown University Hospital in 2012.

Upon completing her degree from Rutgers in 2012, Mirota joined Eurest, a food service company that ?advises clients on nutrition and other food-related topics ?as a corporate dietitian to spread wellness awareness among employees.

She helped set up wellness tables at Eurest’s clients’ cafeterias and would educate the employees of the clients. For example, during American Heart month, she created tables focused on foods that would improve heart health and recommend foods that would minimize the risk of heart disease. She also worked with the kitchen staff to create dishes that were heart healthy.

“I worked with chefs to make sure their menus had balanced offerings, such as dishes with low sodium and vegetarian options,” Mirota said.

Kerry Cowart, Eurest Eastern Division Wellness Director at the time, highlighted Mirota’s ability to work with other people and educate others on wellness initiatives. She noted that Mirota possessed characteristics that were essential to being an excellent dietitian.

“Melissa has well-rounded experience include food service operations and nutrition expertise,” Cowart said. “With her experience and expertise, Melissa implemented and ran wellness programs, to meet her client’s wellness needs and goals.”

Outside of her job, Mirota loves to hike and ski, and is currently immersed in a novel called “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and how They Shape Our Lives.” She enjoys being a dietitian and interacting with the community, and hopes to encourage others to attend her activity tables and make healthy eating choices.

“The more I stay in the field, the more I’m grateful, because I feel there is power in how we choose to eat,” she said.

 

 

 

 

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