Food is many things – sustenance, fuel, pleasure, tradition. Among its most important properties is food’s ability to support – or harm – health. Healthy eating habits can help prevent some diseases and ailments and treat others. Malnutrition or poor diet quality can have opposite effects.
PLNU alumni Taylor Johnson-Gordon (10), Jennifer (Smit) Nemeth (07), and Alison (Sansom) Patt (08) have all built careers aimed at improving people’s lives and health through food. Each serves a specific population in a different role. Together, they are helping to harness the power of food through their career and personal callings.
Taylor Johnson-Gordon (10), M.A., Founder of Sistah of the Yam, LLC
Taylor Johnson-Gordon has brought together an undergraduate degree in biology from PLNU and a master’s in Christian education from Princeton Theological Seminary in a unique and powerful way.
“I work to support Black women, particularly Black mothers, to build resilience through food and herbs,” she said. Johnson-Gordon does this important work through a company she founded called Sistah of the Yam, LLC. At the same time, she is working on her second master’s degree, this time a Master of Science in nutrition and integrative health from Maryland University School of Integrative Health.
After she completed her seminary degree, Johnson-Gordon moved to Philadelphia and began working at The Food Trust in nutrition education. Among her duties were providing cooking demonstrations at farmers markets and overseeing food distribution at churches and community centers. It was after gaining this experience that she founded Sistah of the Yam.
Through her business, she teaches courses and workshops and works with clients one on one. Her focus is on helping women during pregnancy and early motherhood. Being a Black mother of two young daughters herself, Johnson- Gordon can relate to her clients on a very personal level. In fact, each part of her work is personal. Johnson-Gordon’s interest in nutrition developed as she was seeking healing from her own troubled past relationship with food.
“In seminary, God helped me transform my relationship with food,” she said. “I realized the way I treat my body and the Earth matter. I learned that I could have a relationship with food that was healing.”
Johnson-Gordon found a healthier relationship with food when she aimed to align her approach to eating with her belief that she has been made in the image of God. She also benefited from transitioning to a plant-based diet and from focusing more on herbalism. She loves that culinary herbs such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and peppermint can have positive health effects on the body.
“When I took botany in my program [at PLNU], it opened me up to viewing plants in a different way,” she said. “I am working towards becoming a licensed certified nutrition specialist, or CNS, which requires taking a board certification exam.” As for why she chooses to focus on Black mothers as her clients, Johnson-Gordon believes helping these women improve their health is the way she can help uplift her community.
Johnson-Gordon moved to Philadelphia in 2014 not long before the protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, began over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer. Johnson-Gordon became involved in activism and met her husband at a town hall that took place a few months after the unrest. For a time, Johnson-Gordon participated in the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter, but she ultimately was drawn to a different path to improve the lives of Black Americans.
“Black women are the gatekeepers of food and traditions within our families and community systems.”
“I found for me, constantly trying to dismantle things was very self-injurious,” she said. “It was not the work I was supposed to be doing. I decided to focus on building up and edifying. The work I do is that in a generational capacity.”
Knowing the impact of stress on many Black women as well as negative maternal health outcomes, she saw helping Black women improve their health and the health of their families through better nutrition as a way to make a real difference.
“Black women are the gatekeepers of food and traditions within our families and community systems,” she said. “One way to transform communities is to transform women’s lives. Many people don’t understand the depth of what I do because it isn’t as visible, but it is very important.”
The pandemic hasn’t prevented Johnson-Gordon from her work since she had already been moving toward doing more work online. She is very grateful for the path her life has taken thus far. As an undergrad, she started out pre-med but felt uncertain what her career should be once she decided that wasn’t the career she wanted. In seminary, she also didn’t feel called into a specific ministry area. Now she sees how her interests were leading her to where she is today.
“God didn’t waste any aspect of my life and story,” she said. “It all has come together and coalesced for me.” She hopes her story can be an inspiration to others who aren’t yet sure how God will use them.
Jennifer Nemeth (07), RN, Cardiac Rehabilitation Nurse and Plant-based Cooking Instructor
Jennifer Nemeth has combined her undergraduate degree in dietetics from PLNU with her nursing degree from Cal State San Marcos to create a career that helps people with serious cardiac ailments improve their health. She’s also recently launched her own YouTube show, Eating4E (eating4e.com and on Instagram eating4e), that focuses on teaching parents and grandparents how to help children enjoy more plant-based foods.
Nemeth began her nursing career at Sharp Grossmont Hospital before taking a position with Sharp Rees-Stealy medical group where she worked with a cardiologist. After seven years with Sharp, she landed her dream job as a cardiac rehabilitation nurse at UCSD in August 2017.
Nemeth and her team at UCSD run a lifestyle program for patients recovering from serious cardiac events such as heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac stent placement, valve replacement or repair, stable angina, or heart transplant. Her unit’s regular and intensive programs both help patients with diet, exercise, stress management, and group support. Nemeth’s role includes monitoring patients’ hearts with an EKG while they exercise and addressing issues such as medication changes as well as doing assessments when new patients come in.
When it comes to nutrition, Nemeth advocates for a plant-based diet. “Our cardiologist, medical director, and dietitian also support that,” she said. “Plant-based is the only diet I know of proven by peer reviewed research to help prevent patients from having future cardiac events. Coming out of Point Loma, I appreciate that it’s based on science, but anecdotally as well, everyone I talk to who tries it feels better.”
Nemeth herself has been vegan for the past nine years.
“My husband, Justin, was the source of inspiration,” she said. “He had precursors to colorectal cancer in his 20s.” Though the Nemeths already considered themselves healthy eaters, as they did research, they decided to transition to a plant-based diet. They were influenced by the book Eat to Live and the documentary Forks Over Knives. With their transition to a vegan diet, Justin’s health issues were resolved. Jennifer and Justin also both lost weight, felt increased energy, and stopped getting headaches. Because of her experience and training, Nemeth loves helping her patients feel healthier through plant-based eating.
“What keeps me inspired is helping promote better health for others and seeing their lives improved and hopefully extended,” she said. Nemeth also finds motivation from her faith.
“God tells us that we are spiritual bodies and that He lives within us,” she said. “I think as Christians, we should take care of our bodies as best we can, so we can be witnesses for Him.”
Nemeth knows that preventing health issues through good nutrition can help people in physical and spiritual ways. She has written a Lenten devotional that encourages Christians to consider adopting a vegan diet during Lent as a spiritual practice (it’s available as a free download at LentandLearn.com). Now, she’s aiming to add parents to those she reaches through her new YouTube channel calling Eating4E. While she was working at Sharp, Nemeth taught cooking classes with a company called Veg Appeal (Veg-Appeal.com) on the side. The show builds on that experience and adds to it in an online format.
“My motive was to have a fun, informative channel for parents to encourage them to eat more plants with their children,” she said.
“God tells us that we are spiritual bodies and that He lives within us. I think as Christians, we should take care of our bodies as best we can, so we can be witnesses for Him.”
The name has a four-part meaning. First, “E” stands for her son Ethan who co-stars with her in each episode and now his new baby brother Evan, who was born in December 2020. “E” also represents energy (encompassing the health aspect of plant-based eating); environment (discussing how veganism can help protect the planet); and empathy (representing how plant-based eating is compassionate towards animals).
Nemeth is focused on producing short shows with a fun, practical, and simple focus. Each episode is 10 minutes or less. “I do like to keep it simple,” she said. “I know people are busy. I like to offer food hacks that can make it simple — for example, using canned beans instead of making them from scratch or buying pre- cooked brown rice from Costco or using frozen veggies.”
Along with the tips, Nemeth covers a health topic in each episode. Topics so far have included how to get enough protein, calcium, and vitamin D through plant-based eating; how to incorporate Omega-3s and healthy fats; which plant-based milks are best for kids; and how to build a healthy plate. Each episode also includes a recipe, taste-tested and approved by Ethan. As he grows up with the show, Nemeth plans to let her son do some of the teaching and talking. She also plans to host guests and cover additional topics after the pandemic.
Alison Patt (08), MBA, President and CEO of Thomas Cuisine
Alison Patt, MBA, is the president and CEO of Thomas Cuisine, which provides scratch cooked meals in corporate, healthcare, university, and senior living settings.
“We are really wholeheartedly invested in the difference food can make in people’s lives,” Patt said. Patt’s passion for providing fresh, healthy food has been born out of her personal experiences.
“I think back to Point Loma, and some of my favorite experiences on campus were sharing a meal and talking on the terrace of the ‘Caf’,” she said. “The concept of breaking bread is pretty transformational.”
After earning her bachelor’s in communications with a minor in public relations from Point Loma, Patt took a job on the East Coast with Martha Stewart’s magazine division. After gaining experience in events, writing, business, and sales, she moved back to San Diego where she began a career in luxury hospitality, working at The Lodge at Torrey Pines and L’Auberge Del Mar.
Eventually, Patt transitioned from hospitality to food management, joining Continental in the greater Detroit area. While there, she earned her MBA from the University of Michigan. “Impacting people’s lives with food became a calling and a mission for me,” she said. In addition to her work experiences, Patt’s passion for healthy food was cemented at home. Patt’s 8-year-old son, Joey, has autism and is nonverbal. She and her husband, Joe, have found that diet quality has made a big impact for him — and for themselves and their younger son. “Food was the biggest difference maker,” she said.
In October 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Patt accepted the position of president and CEO of Thomas Cuisine, and she and her family moved to Boise, Idaho. In addition to sitting on the board and leading the strategic direction of the company, Patt is tasked with growing the organization and its mission and expanding Thomas Cuisine’s influence in the food space. To that end, she spends her days deeply engaged with her team members and customers, with the company’s business processes, and with the company’s culinary direction.
Patt has faced new challenges in terms of integrating technology into Thomas Cuisine’s business practices, a shift that has been hastened by the pandemic. “Technology is a very disruptive piece of the food space right now,” she said. “It’s exciting, but COVID has sped things up with touchless payments, delivery, food lockers, robot salad machines, and grab-and-go options for students on campus.”
“I wholeheartedly believe in food as medicine, and I want to share that with others.”
In the food industry, safety has always been a challenge and priority. Again, the pandemic has increased the requirements and urgency. “We serve some of the most impacted places [in the country],” she said. “We need to keep our own people and those we serve safe. There is no room for error.”
Another challenge for Patt has been the limitations on being able to interact with her team in the field – Thomas Cuisine’s staff is spread across 17 states. Fortunately, she has been able to leverage virtual connections. She’s also taken the helm at a time when “food has become a recruiting and retention tool in corporate America, colleges, and senior living centers.” Providing excellent, healthy food is a “big part of engagement and satisfaction” for many of her clients.
Keeping her motivation high hasn’t been an issue for Patt because of how much she loves and believes in what she does. “My son has been such a big motivation for me,” she said. “I wholeheartedly believe in food as medicine, and I want to share that with others.”
Patt also believes in the relational power of sharing meals. “I see another side that food is more than calories or even fuel,” she said. “Food can be about bettering your body and caring for the temple. I fell in love with how cooking my food from scratch made me feel and what food can mean at home for children and families.”
Johnson-Gordon, Nemeth, and Patt are three of many PLNU alumni using food-related careers to better the health of others. Their faith, education, and passion for what they do unites them.