Ana Nunez-Zepeda is a Community-Based Instructor at the UNR Cooperative Extension. Her typical day includes teaching Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) classes at five different Reno Housing Authority community centers for families with children who are aged 5–12.
“This week, we showed them how to make cut fruit and a veggie wrap,” said Nunez-Zepeda. “We always think children are picky eaters, but they really aren’t. They love to try new recipes.”
The twelve-week program is free, and 8-10 families attend each class that includes lessons on how to stretch their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollar and how to prepare healthy meals at home that are healthier and less expensive than processed foods.
The children who attend these classes are always hungry, said Nunez-Zepeda. “They are willing to taste anything.” She remembers introducing them to watermelon—a novelty that quickly became a favorite.
“It’s really beneficial when parents can attend the classes, too,” she said. “They are the ones making decisions and doing the grocery shopping. That’s when changes really happen.”
Nunez-Zepeda was born in Mexico, and came to the United States when she was thirteen. Adapting to a new language and a new environment was challenging, but one that has helped in a career that requires her to work with different ethnicities. “I can understand what they are going through,” she said.
She attended Reed High School and became a TMCC student in 2009. “I always knew I wanted to do the Dietetic Technician Program. I’ve always liked healthy eating and physical activity. It was important to me to learn about how to live a healthy lifestyle so I could teach those ideas and practices to underserved communities.”
Nunez-Zepeda worked closely with TMCC Dietetic Technician Program Coordinator Dr. Heather Graham Williams, who Nunez-Zepeda said, helped her to find an appropriate internship that piqued her interest in nutrition and public health. Her internship had three components: clinical service, community service, and food service. One of Nunez-Zepeda’s internship placements was at the Reno VA Hospital. “We were required to complete 150 hours at each site,” she remembered. “But I ended up doing more at the VA—I volunteered for three more months.”
Volunteer hours on top of school and work hours was challenging, but one that Nunez found rewarding. “It’s really hard to find places to volunteer,” she said. Her true calling, though, came with her internship with the UNR Cooperative Extension, where she currently works. “I was really happy to go there—I love working with the community and serving them.”
Food for Thought
Working for the UNR Cooperative Extension—and in public health—has changed Nunez-Zepeda’s life and the lives of those around her. With ten siblings, she comes from a large family with “lots of nieces and nephews” to whom she teaches healthy habits. “My work opens my mind,” she said. “It’s taught me to take the time to encourage others to try a new fruit or vegetable—to give them more exposure. You’re much more likely to have healthier habits if you do.”
Although Nunez-Zepeda finds her work at the Cooperative Extension incredibly rewarding, she is not at the end of her academic and professional journey. She plans on pursuing a Master’s in Public Health. “That will give me more knowledge on how to make changes in policy—changes that need to happen—in order to help our community,” she said.
What made the difference for Nunez-Zepeda—and what she advises other students to do—is to work closely with their professors and advisors. “Dr. Graham-Williams was able to place me in meaningful internships because she knew where I wanted to go with my career,” said Nunez-Zepeda.
“Share your dreams. Your professors will help you reach them.”
For more information about TMCC’s Dietetic Technician Program, contact the department at 775-673-7138.