“TC claims, rightfully, that it founded the first nutrition program and, with that, the field of nutrition education,” says colleague, friend and collaborator Pamela Koch. “And Isobel has had a huge influence during her time at Teachers College as the field went through substantial change. She basically applied a psychology frame to understand why people eat what they eat while using communication and educational theories to develop effective lessons, interventions and programs to change behaviors.”
TC claims, rightfully, that it founded the first nutrition program and, with that, the field of nutrition education. And Isobel has had a huge influence during her time at Teachers College as the field went through substantial change.
—Pamela Koch, Executive Director of TC’s Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy and Associate Research Professor
Koch, Executive Director of TC’s Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, and Associate Research Professor, this spring joined fellow colleagues, friends, students and alumni to celebrate Contento’s life and career at a recent fittingly named conference, “Nutrition Education in a Changing World,” in advance of the Contento’s September retirement.
Koch will succeed Contento as the Rose professor this fall. The professorship honors Rose, a nutrition education pioneer credited with helping develop widely-accepted dietary standards and establishing the nation’s first nutrition education lab at TC, where she taught from 1910–1940.
“Isobel epitomizes Dr. Rose’s ideals by linking theory with research,” program director Randi Wolf told attendees of a 2020 tribute to Contento. “To me, Isobel has been a mentor. I’ve learned so much about what it takes to be a good researcher, a good teacher, and what it means to deeply love your work and deeply love your students.”
To me, Isobel has been a mentor. I’ve learned so much about what it takes to be a good researcher, a good teacher, and what it means to deeply love your work and deeply love your students.
—Randi Wolf, Program Director and Associate Professor of Human Nutrition
Born to missionaries, Contento grew up in China and was introduced to “food justice” in India and other nations during family travels as a child.
Her interest in nutrition formed as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, and took shape during the pursuit of a Master’s and Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley.
But it was in her first posting, as a Faculty Fellow in nutrition and biology at California’s University of Redlands from 1969–77, that created a clear path to what lay ahead.
“There was a narrow view of nutrients and food when I got into nutrition,” Contento recalled.
The times were however changing in the field of nutrition with the 1971 publication of Diet for a Small Planet, the Frances Moore Lappé treatise linking eating habits to environmental sustainability.
Across the country, the research of Joan Gussow – TC’s first Rose Professor – was pointing in the same direction.
Contento moved the needle forward after arriving at TC as an Associate Professor in 1977 with research that added a social psychology lens to nutrition.
“People trained in nutrition assumed that information about food and diet would change behaviors,” she said. “But it became clear that with a changing food system that heavily promoted less than healthy but tasty foods, information was not going to be enough. No one seemed to know much about how to change those behaviors. The missing piece was between the knowledge and behavior. You have to not only be a nutritionist, but also a psychologist to understand motivations, an educator to design the lesson or program, and a communicator to deliver it – and that’s what makes nutrition education so difficult.”
Connecting those dots ultimately led to the publication of Nutrition Education: Linking Research, Theory, and Practice (Jones & Bartlett Learning Books, 2007).
“It really changed the field,” said Koch. “It really is the first textbook on nutrition and education.”
Join us in honoring Contento’s legacy with a gift to the Isobel Contento Endowed Scholarship, which provides assistance to Master and Doctoral Students in the College’s Nutrition program.
Now in its fourth edition, the book is to modern nutrition education what Harry Potter is to young adult literature. For Contento, the book is a culmination of her own realizations within the field: “I thought translating theory into practice was very complicated until I realized that nutrition education can be seen as a three-legged stool where we focus on why people change eating habits, facilite that behavioral change and provide environmental supports for changing behavior. It was then that I realized I could write a textbook on nutrition education when I put those three features together.”
Contento’s tenure as the Rose Professor, a post she has held since 1999, may be drawing to an end. But she isn’t prepared to close the book.
The fall semester will find Contento again doing what she loves: teaching a nutrition education class while serving as a part-time advisor on student Master’s projects.
“I’m not totally gone,” she laughs. “I’m just not going 24/7 anymore.”
— Steve Giegerich