Hometown: Orono, Maine
Residence: Albemarle County near Boyd’s Tavern
Occupation: Registered dietician at Martha Jefferson Hospital
Personal: Husband, Brian, and daughters, Abby and Courtney
Pastimes: Walking, reading, family time and beach time
Eighth in a 12-part series
Rita Smith is used to having people stop her in the grocery store to ask advice on healthful food choices or offer excuses for the fattening food in their cart.
Smith, who has spent more than 30 years teaching people how to make the right food choices, says it’s just part of her job and mission to help others.
Along with her one-on-one work with clients, Smith does weekly television and radio spots, writes a nutrition column, holds classes at grocery stores and lectures to groups about nutrition.
“I see it as my opportunity to reach thousands of people with a message to make better eating choices,” Smith said. “Food is so powerful for people and it sometimes becomes a daily battle. I want to help people win that battle.”
Smith and her husband, Brian, moved to Charlottesville in the 1970s with the intent of moving back north after she finished her studies at the University of Virginia. Their families were in a college town in Maine.
But after graduating and relocating for a brief time, a job and love for the area brought them back to Central Virginia.
“Charlottesville got under our skin and we loved it here,” Smith said. “It’s so similar to where we grew up that it felt like home.”
Smith took a job at UVa, but later went to work at Martha Jefferson Hospital. Her job as a registered dietician brings her in contact with people who are in a food crisis because of medical issues or years of bad food choices.
“It’s a person’s choice to come in and they are usually ready to make some changes,” Smith said. “We sit down and I listen to what is going on. Then my role is to take their information and their lab work and give them some better eating options.”
Pat Napoleon knows Smith’s work firsthand and said it helped her to lose more than 30 pounds and keep it off for more than two years. The two women met years ago when Napoleon was a teacher at the school Smith’s daughters attended.
Napoleon asked Smith if she would talk to her students about healthful eating choices and Smith brought in her pots and pans and let the children help her cook a nutritious snack.
“She is a great teacher and a great role model in her teaching,” Napoleon said.
A few years ago, when Napoleon’s weight climbed up to an unhealthy number, she set up an appointment with Smith. The two women met one time and the discussion made a huge impact on Napoleon, she said.
“She gave me helpful hints, strategies and a plan to make better eating choices,” Napoleon said. “The thing she explained to me is you can’t do it overnight.”
Smith said every person who comes into her office has different eating needs, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. She sees her work as part teaching and part debunking food myths.
“Consumers need a sound voice in the nutritional garbage dump that is out there,” Smith said. “Consumers are really confused about what is healthy and what isn’t healthy and what works and what doesn’t.”
Susan Winslow, director of community services at Martha Jefferson, said Smith’s passion about her job inspires others.
“She just lives, breathes and embodies what she teaches people,” Winslow said. “Rita really spends every moment of every day trying to help people make healthier eating goals. She puts herself out there and committed herself to helping people.”
Over the years, Smith’s client base has gotten younger and younger as childhood obesity has become a problem. It’s not uncommon for her to meet with whole families who are facing eating issues.
“Parents are overwhelmed with health messages,” Smith said. “I try to tell parents to model good food choices and come together as a family unit to eat meals.”
Smith enjoys getting calls and letters from people she’s worked with over the years. Sometimes weight loss has made the client unrecognizable.
“My role is to help a client find a balance and a lifelong plan of eating well,” Smith said. “I make the suggestions, but they are the ones that have to do the hard work to make it happen.”