CWU News

Nutrition Alums Use Their CWU Training to Improve Lives of Others

Portrait of CWU's Nutrion program alumns.

From left: Elaina Moon, Jason Patel (chef), Kathaleen Briggs Early, Ineke Ojanen (CWU alum and dietitian/food for life instructor), and Professor David Gee.

Sometimes people pick their careers; other times, their careers pick them. For Central Washington University alumna Kathaleen Briggs Early, it has been the latter. 

Briggs Early is now in her 14th year as a professor at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences (PNWU) in Yakima, but she is quick to credit CWU as a catalyst for her career successes.

“I always refer back to the foundational knowledge I obtained at Central because it set me up very well for grad school and as a professional,” said Briggs Early (’97), who came to Ellensburg in the early 1990s to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. “The CWU dietetics program gave me a really good understanding of how the food we eat affects our bodies. Now, I’m using that knowledge to educate future medical professionals and help underserved populations in rural communities.”

Briggs Early, 47, could have simply followed her initial goal of pursuing a career in dietetics, but the CWU Food Science and Nutrition program — specifically, Professor David Gee — gave her a larger purpose.

“The summer research experience I had working with Dr. Gee was so fun and positive that it really got me thinking about graduate school,” said Briggs Early, a first-generation college student who participated in the McNair Scholars program before eventually earning a PhD from Washington State University.

“Without that experience, I may have never applied for grad school,” she continued. “I probably would have just followed my plan to become a dietitian and done that for the rest of my life. But I’m grateful every day that I decided to go to grad school, because now, I am in a position to make an even bigger difference in more people’s lives.”

Nearly 25 years after they first met, Briggs Early and Gee continue to work together as colleagues, spearheading a multi-institution culinary medicine initiative for the past four years. The partnership between CWU, PNWU, WSU, and Heritage University seeks to give future medical professionals (doctors, nurses, and pharmacists) a better understanding of how healthy food and nutrition impacts people’s health. 

Instead of relying on medications to treat diabetes or hypertension, the culinary medicine philosophy involves adopting lasting changes in the way people eat, and improving communication between physicians and nutritionists. Together, they can help patients achieve the best health outcomes.

Briggs Early specializes in diabetes care and education, and culinary medicine provides another crucial tool to help her students and their future patients — and ultimately, the communities they serve.

“We’re teaching doctors that if they can work with their patients to develop more healthy eating habits, that will lead to better health outcomes, and sometimes reducing the need for medications,” she said.  “If they can teach people, in a real-world way, about healthy eating, that can lead to some actual behavior changes for people living with chronic conditions like diabetes.”

A Fresh Approach

Another alum who has been using her CWU training to help others improve their nutritional habits is 2015 graduate Elaina Moon.

The owner of Healthy Eats Nutrition Services in Yakima already has established herself as a difference-maker in the community through her health coaching/meal planning business. And, like Briggs Early, she thinks back to her time at Central as a turning point in her life.

“Central gave me an opportunity to learn about not just the nutrition side, but also nonprofit management and how to run a business,” Moon said. “One of my biggest goals with this business was to reach more people in the community and show them all of the benefits of eating healthy. Dr. Gee helped point me in a good direction, and then I figured out how to put the pieces together. His guidance has been very inspirational to me over the years.”

Moon, 36, still keeps in touch with Gee, and she has been offering cooking classes as part of the culinary medicine program. The pandemic complicated their partnership for about 16 months because Healthy Eats couldn’t offer in-person classes. But Moon looks forward to providing more in-person learning opportunities this summer and fall.

“It’s been great to work with people who are so passionate about eating healthy and promoting more plant-based diets,” she said. “I’ve always had a heart for serving the community, and being involved in something like this gives me another way of helping people.”

Moon, who earned an Individual Studies degree in nutrition and nonprofit organizational management, said she hopes to see culinary medicine training become a central pillar in more medical, nursing, and pharmacology schools.

She believes her cooking classes will continue to complement to the program, especially for the more health-conscious younger generation. Based on her years of experience, she can’t overstate the benefits of proper nutrition when it comes to maintaining overall health.

“There are a lot of current and future students who will be able to use this information in their careers, but it’s still a fairly new concept,” Moon said. “We’re seeing a lot of excited students, and it’s a good sign to see so many of them buying in.”

Read more about the culinary medicine program in the current issue of Crimson & Black magazine.

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs,, 509-963-1518.