Reflecting back on how she became interested in nutrition, Dr. Pam Koch, daughter of a wonderful Italian cook, remembers fondly that food was a central part of her childhood. Though an extremely picky eater, she recalls her mother making delicious meals for the family, with lots of pasta, meatball, homemade manicotti and always vegetables. While everyone else enjoyed the food, Pam would nibble and push it around on her plate. Her mother, a bit over 5 feet, had been a chunky child, but when she went to work as a senior in high school, she lost weight. Being even shorter than her mother, Dr. Koch was aware that food and weight control went hand-in-hand, and she’d have to be careful about what she ate.
The oldest of three siblings in a very patriarchal family, Dr. Koch was the first in the family to go to college. She had loved biology in high school and as a freshman at Rutgers University, she entered a nutrition science program, switching into dietetics because “she didn’t need an advanced degree.”
As fate would have it, she also happened upon a job ad in the school paper for a nutrition education assistant and soon found herself promoting the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans to students in the cafeteria. She thought of creative ways to get their interest like wheeling in 120 pounds of sugar to demonstrate how much sugar the average American ate in a year. Later in the job, she started trying to modify behaviors using a 10-lesson series written by her boss, a health educator. She conducted workshops at residence halls like Vegetarian Eating, and Food and Mood.
As a junior, she accompanied several friends to look at the master’s programs at Teachers College, Columbia University. During the tour she loved it and thought, “if I ever do an advanced degree, I’m going to come here.” But a bachelor’s degree was all she was planning on until her job led her to receive a full scholarship to stay at Rutgers and complete a Master of Science in Applied Nutrition from 1988–90. Not what she had planned, but an opportunity too good to pass up.
In 1989, Dr. Koch went to the American College Health Association conference, to present her work in nutrition education. At a student meet up, she met Aaron who was there because he was interested in alcohol education for his campus. He was studying communications at Iowa State and was a mid-westerner from Nebraska. They dated long distance for a year. Then she followed him to Missouri and continued to develop her skills as a nutrition educator with faculty and students at Central Missouri University as well as broadening her experience doing clinical nutrition and food service in a hospital.
Several things stood out that particularly foretold Dr. Koch’s career path, as she made her way boldly from opportunity to opportunity. First, “I went to Marriott (the food service company at Central Missouri University) and said, ‘I could work for you!’ selling her skills on the spot and convincing the director to create a brand-new position, Nutrition and Wellness Promoter, – using all she had learned from her studies and work at Rutgers. “I am an in the moment person and become very dedicated to everything I do,” she reported. “I learned how the campus worked because of my boyfriend, so I knew what they needed.” Second, this led her to get to know the nutrition faculty who then hired her to teach her first college level course, “Early Childhood Nutrition and Health,” a course for education majors, and loved it. Third, her boss recommended she get a doctoral degree. Aaron graduated and got a job in South Carolina. Pam had to decide what was next.
Against all odds, she applied to Teachers College for a doctoral degree in nutrition education, writing in her personal statement that she wanted to do her research with children and schools. After she was admitted, she began working on the Cookshop program, with nutritionist Toni Liquori, developing curriculum and teaching in a few public schools for her doctoral research. The Cookshop program had students cook vegetables, whole grains, and beans during classroom lessons, using the same recipes being prepared by the school lunch staff. The idea was the classroom cooking experience would lead to more consumption in the lunchroom, which it did!
Then in 1997, she and her doctoral advisor and the Director of the Program in Nutrition, Dr. Isobel Contento, got the first of many years of funding from the Science Education Partnership Award of the National Institutes of Health to write curriculum, Linking Food and the Environment (LiFE), that was an inquiry-based science and nutrition education curriculum.
Little did she know back as a junior in college visiting the 120th street campus, that the majority of her life and career would be spent in the halls of Teachers College. She considers the curriculum development work she did on the LiFE curriculum as phase 1 of her career. Phase 2 began as the Executive director of the newly founded Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy. Instead of writing the curriculum she and her staff oversee a coalition of organizations working on food and nutrition education in schools and improving school food. Her team also does works on nutrition policy that can create a more just, sustainable food system.
In her professor role, she is fortunate to co-teach one of Teachers College’s seminal courses, Nutritional Ecology, with pioneer Dr. Joan Gussow, a course that challenges all the food systems and their impact on the environment and society. When asked about the direction of TC and its students, Dr. Koch reflected that 98% of their students leave with a Master’s in Nutrition and the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential. Many people think “you need a strong clinical foundation.” She doesn’t necessarily think so and “wishes the field could be bolder.” She is interested in attracting more non-white people working on a wide variety of food issues to the field. “I want to see more jobs in sustainability, food justice and food security.” (See “Forging the Future of Food and Nutrition Education” in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.)
And what happened to Aaron? After being separated by 5 states for 6 months, she visited him in South Carolina where he proposed. Her answer was yes as long as he moved to NYC because she wasn’t going to leave Teachers College. Now married for 27 years with 2 sons, Dr. Koch continues to manage her family, a full life and a dynamic career living walking distance to campus.
Her advice to young professionals?
“Every opportunity will be valuable down the road. I was willing to try anything even though I may not have seen value at the time.”Pam Koch, 2020