CALS student hopes to educate consumers about healthy food choices
When Satoko Haji began working with Japanese vegetable farmers she noticed that the market for vegetables was dwindling. That sparked her interest — how people choose what to eat — and led her to the University of Idaho.
Haji will earn a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition: dietetics option from the U of I College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in spring 2019.
Haji, 31, grew up in Fukuoka, Japan, and earned a degree in plant science from Okayama University in 2012. Prior to graduating, she participated in the Japanese Agricultural Exchange Program and spent 18 months in the United States to learn more about growing vegetables in Washington and California.
After receiving her degree, Haji began working for the Oita Prefecture government, helping farmers with everything from growing and management to education and variety trials. During her exchange to the U.S., Haji became intrigued about the types of food people choose to eat. She saw Americans eating less vegetables and more processed food and, when she returned to Japan, she noticed this trend creeping into her home country.
“We traditionally eat a lot of vegetables,” Haji said. “There are many hamburger joints in Japan now, which is not traditional at all. The younger generation, they don’t know how to cook and have more access to processed food.”
In 2015, Haji decided to change her career focus to become a registered dietitian in order to educate consumers about nutritious foods. She returned to the U.S. and visited friends she had made during her time in Washington. They took her to Washington State University to inquire about dietetics programs — where staff members suggested that she learn more about the program at U of I. Haji visited Moscow and decided to enroll.
“It was a little bit stressful, but I was excited,” Haji said. “To just quit my job and there is nothing left behind me so I was excited about my future.”
A New Path
Haji lived in the McConnell Residence Hall her first year in Moscow and credits the other students with helping her feel at home.
“The first semester was tough because of my English and I didn’t know anybody,” she said. “My friends in McConnell helped me a lot for the first semester.”
The faculty in the Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences also helped Haji succeed.
“The professors and my classmates at the University of Idaho are really helpful and supportive,” she said. “Whenever I asked a question they tried to help me understand more. My English is not that good and my background is different so sometimes I had a hard time understanding and they helped me and were patient with me.”
One of the things Haji was most excited to learn about at U of I was the whole foods plant-based diet, which emphasizes a wide range of vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruit. This approach fits in more with Haji’s traditional Japanese diet and personal food preferences.
“That opened my eyes,” she said. “I had never heard of it before. It’s really interesting to think about how powerful food can be to our health. I personally believe that moderation and enjoying your food are always the keys regardless of your diet or food choices. But eating foods as whole, less processed, definitely has benefits on our health.”
Haji plans to take the registration examination for dietitians after graduation and will also apply for Optional Practical Training, which allows international students who are studying in the U.S. to work for one year on a student visa to gain practical training to complement their education. After gaining experience in the U.S., Haji will either return to Japan, or move to Ethiopia to be with her fiancé who is working there.
“I’m not sure if I can work in Ethiopia or not, but at least I can use my agricultural background and also my dietetics background to help local people and families of officers working at foreign embassies or companies,” she said. “This is actually my childhood dream. I feel it’s a great chance to make it come true.”
Haji envisions starting a garden where she can teach consumers everything from planting and cultivating a garden to harvest and how to use the produce in meals.
“I don’t know the target population yet, maybe the kids or the mothers and inviting them to the garden and starting from the harvest and cooking together and then also while eating we can talk about the nutrition,” she said. “Even if you don’t really think about it, we have to eat at least a couple times a day and it affects your body and your mood and your life.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Published in May 2019