Featuring: Vidya Ravikumar, Registered Dietician in Food Services, Stoddard Baptist Global Care

If you like Ethiopian cuisine, you’re probably familiar with Berbere, a blend of spices used in a variety of savory dishes. Berbere is made with chile peppers, fenugreek, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and coriander. And Vidya Ravikumar knows this, because these are the same spices used generously in the Indian food she grew up with. She also knows that every single one of these spices contains nutritional and medicinal properties. Cardamom promotes heart and oral health, helps in diabetes and digestion, fights depression and asthma, and treats skin infections. Fenugreek improves digestion, reduces inflammation, and helps those with eating disorders. Ginger helps digestion, reduces nausea, and helps fight the flu and common cold. Coriander has dietary fiber that advances liver function and aids digestion. Chili peppers lower blood pressure and relieve congestion, and cinnamon is full of antioxidants and reduces stomach bloat. The way these spices are used are part of culinary traditions we often associate with specific cultures, and warm feelings and memories of family and home.

So, when a resident at Stoddard Baptist Global Care started talking about wanting to leave because of the food, Vidya Ravikumar, a Registered Dietitian in the Food Services Department, knew just what to do. She had been cooking Indian, Mexican, and Ethiopian food since she was a child. She went to work planning a menu of nutritionally healthy, completely vegan, and culturally and religiously appropriate meals for this Ethiopian nun. Many of the ingredients weren’t readily available in the kitchen, so Vidya went shopping to pick up the particular spices, special vegetables, and other ingredients she’d need for the meals. Vidya prepped, cooked, and plated these exceptional meals, and personally delivered them to the resident’s room. The resident was very grateful for Vidya’s efforts. In the kitchen, the cooks were providing immense support by learning the recipes for the future and expanding the kitchen’s offerings for a more diverse set of palettes. Vidya notes, “[The resident] saw the effort I was putting in and said, ‘It’s OK I eat Indian food also,’ and agreed to stay for more time.”

Food is important to the patient and resident experience, and Vidya knows this well. “There have been extensive studies on how food affects mood and well-being, and certain clinical conditions,” she explains. “Most people are happy when you give them their favorite foods. If a person is happy, recovery is faster.”

Vidya has had a passion for clinical nutrition and cooking since she was a child. The youngest of six children, she was raised in India, where young people decide on a career track in 11th grade. So, Vidya declared a Nutrition and Dietetics major, and followed that track through college and graduate school to become a Dietician.

Vidya also had been active on stage during her school days, so after graduating in Food Science and Nutrition, she did a one-year, post-graduate diploma in journalism, communications, and creative writing, and went to work for a satellite television studio. When she came to the US with her husband, she worked as a news anchor for an Asian news network; volunteered at National Institute of Health’s Clinical Nutrition Department; and did course work, interned and was accepted as a student fellow at National Cancer Institute’s 5-A-Day-Program, which pulled her more and more into nutrition.

Vidya started her career by establishing nutrition programs at Whitman Walker, “I had to establish myself,” she recounted. “Doctors were writing prescriptions that were causing unnecessary side effects when they could have been referring patients to me. It took time to bond with doctors and earn their trust. I had to be creative about how to do this. I forged partnerships with the FDA to talk about food and drug interactions and introduced exercises for mental wellness. This is how I went about establishing service.”

When her husband’s job took them to Singapore, Vidya reinvented herself again, and taught microbiology, molecular biology, and chemistry at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore to pharmaceutical students, while raising her children. And then she became a marathon runner. (Of course, she did!)

Vidya has been with Stoddard Baptist Global Care now for 5 years, and it’s her first long-term care experience. “The population here is happy with the menus in place, but there are challenges when nutrition requirements are outside the norm, such as vegan and vegetarian. In those cases, I plan those meals for a resident’s entire stay and get whatever ingredients are needed to make them. To plan is easy, but to execute, you need the support of those higher up. I must credit my boss, Larry Faison, who gives shape to my wildest ideas, and always says yes!”

Vidya does have an affinity for older people. “My parents are old, my in-laws are old, and even my siblings are much older than I am. And caring for the elderly is part of my cultural background. We were raised to respect the elderly and to focus on providing service and deriving happiness from that.”

Vidya credits her father’s influence for her impeccable work ethic. “He was a Railway Officer, and a kind and compassionate gentleman. He would be home for lunch with his family, but when something went wrong at the railway and the siren went off, he would jump up from the table and be gone until the crisis was over.” She would hear his stories and began to realize that “a job is not just a job, and that doing it well shows passion, commitment, discipline and compassion.”

When asked about how it felt to receive the Ceca Award, Vidya said, “Winning the Award strengthened my faith in myself.  I don’t have to prove things, but I’m showing the children that a woman’s place is to reach greater heights. My brother, the gastroenterologist, is always telling patient stories. So, I loved showing off how a dietician can get recognized for making a difference.”

“To get recognized is the highest honor one can get, but it doesn’t make me better than anyone,” she admits. “To me it means, I’ve been recognized for a certain standard. And now I have to reach that standard every day and always work towards it. So, I really appreciate the award.”

Vidya Ravikumar is a stickler for rules. She accomplishes what she sets out to do. She is compassionate, committed and a good dietician, and she makes a difference in people’s lives. She feels blessed to be working with the doctors and nurses – to be part of their group. She credits her family and husband for supporting all her efforts. And she singles out Fredericka–her teammate, office companion and fellow dietitian–for being her sounding board and morale booster in the office. “That kind of encouragement from family and appreciation from co-workers and administration—everyone played a big role in my being who I am today. So once again, thanks to the Ceca Foundation for the award and for giving me the opportunity to express my gratitude to the people who have supported me through this journey. When you belong to an organization, success cannot belong to just one. Thank you for taking the time to spotlight me and my organization!”