Kristine Smith came to NHA almost eight years ago as the Director of Nutrition Services, but before she began making history at NHA, she was a 17 year-old high school senior with dreams of playing clarinet in the United States Navy Band. Kristine let go of her hopes of joining the band, but her decision to join the Armed Forces is one that would ultimately shape her future as a Registered Dietitian, and influence her decisions as a trailblazing member of the NHA family.
The possibility of attaining a college education came down to whether or not Kristine decided to check the right box on a form she filled out during her first few days of Boot Camp. Although her job came with a generous education stipend, Kristine says she was simply not interested. No one in her family ever attended college, and getting a degree never felt like a big deal to her. Enrolling for these benefits also meant money would be taken from her check every month for a year, a sacrifice she wasn’t sure was worth it. A sailor next to her convinced her to check the box, and 12 months of financial sacrifice paid off when one of Kristine’s friends convinced her to take classes at the Navy College. Still not completely sold on school, she committed to just one class, a nutrition class.
“I wanted to find out how food and nutrition impacted the body, I just wanted to make that connection,” Kristine said.
Kristine’s teacher ignited her desire to move forward from just one class to completing a degree, but attaining this new goal and taking additional classes meant leaving the U.S. Navy, a career she had truly come to love.
“I’ve traveled all over the world and I appreciate that. I appreciate knowing about other people’s cultures, and where they’re from, and how life is different outside of the United States, it gives me a greater appreciation for the differences we have,” Kristine said.
She went on to earn an Associate’s Degree from Pensacola Junior College (now Pensacola State College) in 2000, a Bachelor’s from Kansas State University in 2004, and a Master’s from the University of Alabama in 2012.
Since becoming a Registered Dietitian, Kristine has worked in sports medicine and helped patients who struggle with eating disorders. When she and her husband moved to San Diego, she had every intention of re-enlisting in the Navy, but she decided to come to NHA instead.
In her eight years at NHA, Kristine has completely revamped the Nutrition Services menu, replacing foods like frozen fish sticks and chicken nuggets with fresh, colorful foods like Asian chicken wraps and black bean chili. Mass producing thousands of meals each day from scratch is hard work. Kristine and her team spend lots of time securing locally produced ingredients to create unique meals that give many children and families food experiences they haven’t had before.
“This is not easy. The easier way would be going and getting some pre-packaged stuff and sending it out. That’s easy. But that’s not celebrating food, that’s not quality, and we can do better than that,” she said.
And Kristine and her team have done better, and have received national recognition for the work they have done. In 2012, NHA’s Head Start and Nutrition Services programs were recognized by Michelle Obama’s Lets Move! campaign for promoting children’s health and fighting childhood obesity. But for Kristine and her team, it’s never about the recognition. She says her team is passionate about making meals that will change the way children view food for the rest of their lives.
“I think they would say that they appreciate doing this because they know that it’s impacting these children in the right way,” Kristine said.
The Nutrition Services program prepares 6,000 meals each day. In addition to providing meals to NHA’s Head Start program, the kitchen vends meals to other agencies in San Diego, and they are always looking to do more.
Kristine has come a long way, from the 17 year-old high school senior with no interest in college, to the Director of Nutrition Services for one of the largest social service agencies in San Diego. She is grateful for every decision, and every person who walked into her life that has shaped the passion she has today.
“My whole goal in life is to help people appreciate food and understand it better,” Kristine said.