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Bridging Nutrition and Disability Justice

Alena Morales BS ’21, Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology-Dietetics

Photo by Adam Sings in the Timber.

UC Berkeley’s storied history with disability rights activism played a big role in bringing Alena Morales to campus. “I really liked Berkeley, not only because it’s a good school, but it’s the birthplace of the disability rights movement,” says Morales, a queer, disabled, woman of color. “I came here to be in that environment and explore my identities.”

Throughout her years studying dietetics in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology (NST), Morales was a prominent advocate for students with disabilities. She co-led an initiative with Katie Savin, PhD ’21 Social Welfare, that resulted in the creation of a disability cultural center on campus in 2020.

Changing the Conversation

“Disability justice and dietetics should be more closely intertwined,” Morales says. It’s a viewpoint she brings to her current work at Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center during her dietetics training program offered through NST. In order to become registered dietitians, all graduates must complete at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice experience through an accredited training program.

Morales will spend a large portion of her 10-month program working in various departments at Kaiser, with additional placements at UC Berkeley, a dialysis center, and the Alameda County Public Health Department. Since starting her rotations in August, Morales has provided clinical nutritional therapy to patients, reviewed nutritional facts for Cal Dining’s food service operations, and conducted campus outreach through University Health Services.

“Dietetics is a much more expansive field than people realize” Morales says. “This rotation experience really helps you sample different facets of the career.”
During this training program, Morales often connects with patients with disabilities and offers personal insight and advice on navigating systemic barriers to health. “We’re having a lot of awesome conversations about race and sexuality as it relates to resources, barriers, and privileges,” she says. “I think disability should be part of the conversation too.”

Morales credits the dietetics faculty—who are both leading academic researchers in their field and working professionals with dietetic nutritional practices—with supporting her interest in exploring the intersection of dietetics, public policy, and advocacy.

A Holistic Approach

An analysis of California’s recent expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that Morales co-authored with Savin and researchers from UC San Francisco and Stanford was published in December. Appearing in Nutrients, a peer-reviewed journal on human nutrition, their research found that expanded benefits helped disabled recipients gain access to nutritious food, increased their household budgets, and eased poverty-associated mental distress, among other positive benefits.

That research ties directly into Morales’ views on nutrition. As an aspiring dietitian, Morales believes her work should extend beyond a patient’s immediate nutritional health and well-being. She hopes to connect communities that are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and other barriers to nutrition—like people with disabilities—to the services and resources that can make a difference in their lives.

“My interest in disability is infused in the clinical setting,” says Morales. “Once we address a patient’s daily accessibility needs, they might be able to focus more time and energy on improving their health.”