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Arnell J. Hinkle
1988 Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics

-Rebecca Jones Ulrich

Arnell Josephine Hinkle grew up eating canned and overcooked vegetables. Since then, she has become a gourmet chef and learned organic farming, and is now an internationally recognized leader in the movement to promote better nutrition and physical activity as the path to health. Her current mission is helping adolescents in low-income and ethnic communities to improve their own health and that of their communities by embracing healthy eating practices and exercise.

As the founding executive director of Community Adolescent Nutrition and Fitness (CANFIT), an 18-year-old national nonprofit, Hinkle works with community-based organizations and private and government agencies, in the United States and abroad, to provide training and technical assistance for nutrition and fitness programs. She also advocates for better public policies to support the health of low-income communities of color.

CANFIT works to instill the importance of good nutrition and physical activity, using everything from participatory research to workshops to social media, and engages youth and community members every step of the way.

Hinkle's own interest in food started early and was born of necessity. In her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, her immediate family was small just her father, a Teamster truck driver, and her mother, a garment worker. “My mom worked, so when I came home, I started dinner,” Hinkle says.

“Growing up in St. Louis, meat was in every meal,” she recalls. “If vegetables were fresh they were cooked to death, but they were usually canned.”

She cooked the traditional African American fare she had learned from her mother and grandmother that is, until she participated in a citywide after-school program that mixed children of all backgrounds and income levels. In that program she met a vegetarian who shared his cucumber sandwich with her.

“It was one of the things that changed my life. It was the first time I'd ever seen a cucumber used that way, and it was my first exposure to vegetarianism. I started baking bread and stopped overcooking vegetables.”

A scholarship led her to Princeton University, where she majored in geology. Although most geology majors went on to get Ph.D.s or work in the petrochemical industry, Hinkle knew she wasn't interested in pursuing the field any further. Needing to make a living until she found her calling, she fell back on her old interest: Now a Princeton graduate, she was cooking again. “Of course my family was horrified,” she laughs.

A weekend visit to Martha's Vineyard led to a three-year sojourn in which she apprenticed with a European-trained chef, cooked in the trendiest venues, and landed a brief gig as Diana Ross's personal chef which, besides being a lot of fun, earned her credibility with her previously skeptical parents.

After another restaurant stint in Ecuador, Hinkle accepted a position managing an experimental cross-cultural community development center in New Hampshire, which included a 10-acre property complete with organic gardens and a solar greenhouse.

“I began to understand that if you nurture the soil organically, you get healthier vegetables,” Hinkle says. “For me, there was starting to be a disconnect with the restaurant food I had learned to prepare the heavy creams and sauces and what I was learning about health. This is when I started getting interested.”

So she designed a unique master's program in nutritional horticulture at Leslie College in Boston. New degree in hand, she came to the Bay Area to start a “nutritional gardening” business. She designed organic gardens based on her clients' nutritional needs and provided them with personalized cookbooks to guide them in preparing their harvests.

But landscaping took a heavy physical toll, so Hinkle decided to focus on nutrition, obtaining a second bachelor's, in nutrition and clinical dietetics, at the College of Natural Resources, while simultaneously becoming a registered dietitian (RD).

“I appreciated CNR's programming and the fact that they had really strong female mentors, like Mary Anne Burkman, Pat Booth, and Sharon Fleming,” Hinkle says.

During her RD clinical internship at renal clinics and San Francisco General Hospital, “it really struck me that by the time folks get to the hospital with poor health it can be too late for them to make significant lifestyle changes.” Wanting to work on preventing chronic disease, she ended up staying at Cal to get a master's in public health.

“The education I got in nutrition was great in terms of the science background, but the curricula only paid lip service to the health aspects of ethnic cuisine.” At that time, Hinkle says, the assumption was that to be healthy, people had to completely change their cultural food practices.

That's when she realized that she needed to develop “culturally appropriate interventions.” “You have to work within people's cultural experience to promote healthier behaviors. Every culture has a tradition that includes healthy food and activity.”

Much of Hinkle's work at CANFIT is getting past the perception that healthy eating is elitist and not ethnic. “Low-income, ethnic people were the original proponents of 'slow food,' because that's all they traditionally had.”

CANFIT designs programs to educate and expose adolescents to new ways of thinking about their health and that of their community, Hinkle says—much like the after-school program did for her back in St. Louis.

Now, at family gatherings in St. Louis, Hinkle is known for bringing the vegetable kebabs. And in a full-circle moment, on her last trip back home she supplemented a family dinner of barbecued ribs with a cucumber salad, fresh from a relative's garden.