A Dietitian Is Running for Congress

For a woman who already has 17 letters after her name, you’d think Felicia Stoler would be satisfied to rest on her very significant laurels. But Stoler — a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in applied physiology and nutrition, and a doctorate in clinical nutrition — hopes to add three more come this November: NJ(I). That’s right: If elected to represent the 4th congressional district in New Jersey, Stoler would become the second-ever dietitian to serve in Congress.

While the career progression from clinician, academic, author, speaker and entrepreneur to public servant is unusual, to Stoler, it makes perfect sense. After all, she says, many of our country’s most pressing problems have direct and indirect links to the issue she has devoted her entire career to: health. “There are at least seven congressional committees that oversee nutrition and health — not to mention numerous other committees that rely heavily on science to determine environmental and other health policies,” she says. “But where are the nutritionists, scientists or physicians? Where are the people with science training and critical thinking skills using evidence to decipher what’s real and what isn’t? That’s experience I bring to the table.”

[See: 13 Ways Social Determinants Affect Health.]

Specifically, Stoler has served on the New Jersey governor’s Council for Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition for 15 years, and also was a member of the state’s Obesity Task Force. Then, there was the decade she spent engaged in advocacy on behalf of the American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Stoler is a fellow of both associations), pressing elected representatives on issues related to food, nutrition, health, physical activity policy and professional licensure in New Jersey. She’s also taught nutrition and exercise science at both the community college and university levels, and authored textbook chapters, position papers, consumer articles and the book, “Living Skinny in Fat Genes.” Oh, and she even enjoyed a reality TV stint, acting as the host of TLC’s 2005 to 2007 series, “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids.”

All that has informed the lens through which Stoler views many domestic issues. She supports policies that can improve access to affordable health care (including mental health care), reduce gun violence, promote reproductive rights and address agricultural subsidies. “Good health is foundational to everyday life … and access to health care is foundational to both individual health and the productivity of our economy,” she says. “We all pay indirectly when people don’t have care.”

[See: 13 Ways to Stay Healthy in Tough Economic Times.]

Stoler’s unique background also works in her favor, she believes, because it gives her the type of real-world experience most legislators so sorely lack. “We should have physicians, engineers, architects, farmers … people with the specific expertise needed to help solve our problems directly because they’re the ones who get it,” she says. What’s more, as a lifelong New Jersey resident, Stoler sets herself apart from both the incumbent, republican Chris Smith, who has lived in Virginia for 35 of his 38 years in office, and his democratic challenger, who only recently made New Jersey his primary residence. “If you want to represent people, you should live in the community you represent, and support the local businesses in the goods and services you buy,” Stoler says.

As part of the so-called “pink wave,” or the unprecedented number of women running for public office, Stoler also believes she brings a needed perspective to her potential role: that of a single, working mom and a champion for women’s rights who finally decided it was time for women like her to be better represented in the government. She’s pro-choice, has been vetted as a “gun sense” candidate by Moms Demand Action, thinks anyone should be allowed to use whatever bathroom they feel comfortable with and is a fierce advocate for LGBTQI equality. “At the end of day, I want government out of our bedrooms, bodies and bathrooms,” she says.

But despite holding such socially inclusive and family-friendly policy positions that are not unlike those held by her democratic challenger, her candidacy has been largely ignored by many of the organizations whose missions are to support female and scientist candidates. It’s a snub she suspects is due to her longtime membership in the Republican Party. “I’m an ‘old school’ fiscally conservative, socially moderate republican running independent of a party because I was not given a fair opportunity to participate in a primary against the incumbent,” she says. “It feels like the ‘pink wave’ is only pink to a point, and there may not be room for non-democrat women in this movement — though I hope I’ll be proved wrong about that.”

[See: 7 Major Gaps in Women’s Health Research.]

There’s no question that Stoler is a bit of an underdog in her race; her opponents have thus far out-raised her, and she does not enjoy the built-in support of established local political clubs. But she’s a Jersey girl who’s been knocking on doors in her district from morning until night; the rare dietitian who went on to pursue a doctorate while working full time with two children; a single mom who built a successful career and still found time to serve as president of virtually every organization she’s been a member of. As a fellow Jersey girl and dietitian, I, for one, am not counting her out.

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