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ASU's nutrition program: 100 years in the making

black and white photo of old nutrition lab
May 08, 2014

Walk through the glass doors of Arizona State University’s Kitchen Café and you will find a sleek, modern kitchen staffed by ASU nutrition majors. This is a far cry from a time when students sat at wooden desks, wrote on chalkboards and used miniature gas stoves to cook, which is exactly what ASU’s nutrition program looked like when it began in 1909.

As part of the Tempe Normal School, the nutrition major was called domestic science. According to the 1912-1913 course catalogue, domestic science was “the utilization of all resources of modern science to improve the home life.”

“It was, obviously, a very traditional, cooking and sewing, and preparing women to be wives sort of curriculum. Very, very little hard science,” said Linda Vaughan, director of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion.

Later, in the 1930s, the program transitioned into the Department of Home Economics Education, where nutrition and food was coupled with areas like family studies, textiles and clothing.

Fast-forward to the 1980s when the department evolved again, becoming Family Resources and Human Development. This time, its focus was on developing the two strongest areas: child development and family studies, and foods and nutrition. Back then, selecting a major required flipping through a course catalogue, and foods and nutrition was difficult to find.

“I remember students coming up to me and saying, ‘I had no idea ASU had a nutrition program. You know, if I had known this when I first came to ASU, I would have majored in nutrition,’” said Carol Johnston, associate director of the nutrition program.

In 2000, the provost of ASU East, now the Polytechnic campus, asked foods and nutrition to transfer to ASU East and become its own department of nutrition.

“We were a little nervous about if students would follow us,” said Rose Martin, former senior lecturer for the nutrition program.

With the move to ASU East, the nutrition program gained visibility, students and faculty, but still managed to keep the tight-knit feel of a smaller department.

“As a student, you could come on campus, come to our building, see all of your professors that were in the same hallway and then go to the classrooms in that same building, and finish your day out there,” said Rick Hall, senior lecturer for the nutrition program. “It was always quite a drive to get out there, so once you got out there you kind of just stayed all day and hung out in between classes.”

After the success at ASU East, nutrition was invited to move to the Downtown Phoenix campus in 2009 as part of the College of Nursing & Health Innovation, a move that proved to be a turning point for the program.

“Once we moved downtown, our enrollments surged across the entire school,” said Vaughan. “Our graduate student enrollment increased. We had new and expanded research facilities. We had new and improved instructional laboratories.”

After a few transitions at the Downtown Phoenix campus, the nutrition program is now part of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion within the College of Health Solutions – a natural fit due to shared dedication to health promotion and research.


Today, ASU’s nutrition program is the largest and one of the best recognized nutrition programs in the country, and is continuing to expand. Starting in the fall, two new degree programs – a bachelor of science in nutrition with a concentration in food and tourism management and a master of science in obesity prevention and management - will be added to an already robust set of degree offerings.

Along with adding majors, the program will expand its online course load, according to Vaughan. For example, the bachelor of science in nutrition with a concentration in nutrition communication is now available online.

As health care starts to focus on preventative care and lifestyles, the field of nutrition becomes even more imperative. The American Heart Association estimates that if trends in the growth of obesity continue, annual health care costs attributed to obesity could reach $957 billion by 2030. Teaching patients to make healthy choices will reduce health care costs and allow patients to lead healthier lives.

“For a doctor, what’s a more logical degree to have than nutrition?” said Johnston. “Doctors need to start keeping their patients healthy rather than treating them when they’re sick. And nutrition has a huge impact in that area.”

The program is also looking to expand into community outreach. Currently, it runs Camp CRAVE, a summer camp to help children learn basic fitness and nutrition skills. Children in grades 4-6 are able to come to ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus and practice planning and cooking healthy meals in a real kitchen. Johnston hopes to expand the program into the community by purchasing a van in order to take Camp CRAVE to schools.

“When we got to the site, we would roll the stuff out of the van; the kids would have little stations, and then the chefs would have their stations,” said Johnston. “But we can still teach kids how to cook an egg or just real simple things that they could easily do at home to make a meal.”

Johnston also sees the nutrition program offering community classes in the future. These would be classes that members of the community could take on how to cook, how to stock a pantry, how to shop at the grocery store and other areas of nutrition.

“We’re trying to get classes started, and that way, we can benefit the community,” she said. “If we could have classes in our kitchens every night of the week ... we could even teach them how to do a healthy Thanksgiving dinner.”


Though the nutrition program has gone through many transitions, it has used them to its advantage. The nursing and nutrition programs work closely together on research programs, simulation labs and an interdisciplinary education program. The nutrition program also partners with the exercise and wellness program, the College of Public Programs and the engineering program on various projects.

A program that originated with a focus on creating “the ideal home life for today” now offers lots of opportunities for graduates that are in demand in today’s health and health care industries. For example, ASU offers 20 to 25 dietetic internships every year for graduates who want to become registered dietitians. Also, graduates of the program had a 100 percent pass rate on the National Registration Examination for Dietitians last year.

“I think the most exciting change to our profession is that is has become very rigorous and evidence-based; our program reflects that,” said Vaughan. “The nutrition and dietetics majors are strong enough to send our undergraduate students to medical school, physical therapy school, pharmacy school (and) dental school.”

With all of these reinventions and accomplishments, the nutrition program has kept its focus on what matters most: the students. The program has grown tremendously, and its rich history has helped it excel far beyond what anyone in 1909 could have imagined.

“The ASU nutrition program has really maintained that strength to evolve with the needs of the industry,” said Vaughan. “Our faculty have very high expectations of our students, and we push them to succeed.”

Written by Kaly Nasiff