Food for the Soul: It’s More Than Just a Menu for Mary Wells

Life has a funny way of leading you exactly where you need to be, and for Mary Wells, that place is Arkansas.

When asked about the one word that best describes her, there’s no hesitation before she says “advocate.” After spending an hour filled with coffee and conversation with Wells, it’s easy to understand why. With a resume that would extend well beyond the encouraged one-page mark, she’s a force of positivity armed with knowledge about her chosen profession of dietetics, which has morphed into a lifelong passion.

Her love for her industry is obvious in how she chooses to fill her days. Wells is a registered dietician nutritionist (RDN), a wife and mother to two, an elected delegate for the Arkansas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the board president for the central Arkansas council of Girls on the Run, a nutrition consultant for a local racquetball club and the list goes on. Wells also volunteers her time doing nutrition assessments for Baptist Health’s Healthy and Active Youth program, which was started by her husband and Baptist Health CEO Troy Wells and the Baptist Health Foundation.

Career Turned Passion

Wells’ path to becoming an RDN began after choosing an elective course on basic nutrition while pursuing a degree in journalism. After a switch in majors, graduation and a move out west to work as a dietetic technician at UCLA’s General Clinical Research Center, she quickly realized this wasn’t what she had in mind when she chose a career in dietetics.

So she moved back to home to Arkansas, a place she’d begun to appreciate more after her time in Southern California. Wells returned to school to study health sciences, then pursued her RDN certification, a lengthy and grueling process including an internship at UCA, a national exam, hundreds of hours of supervised practice in clinics around the state and 75 hours of professional development every five years to maintain certification.

Her career took her around the state, from Fayetteville to Newport and then back to central Arkansas, during which time she met Troy. She served as a community health promotion specialist with the Arkansas Department of Health, then worked with state-level partners to implement more nutrition and physical activity in Arkansas schools. In 2011, after the birth of their second child, Wells chose to take a step back and have more time with her family — all the while continuing to be actively involved in the nutrition and dietetics field and health-related programs.

Healthy, Happy Arkansas

One of those programs is Baptist’s Healthy and Active Youth program, where Wells performs pre- and post-program health assessments for kids ages 11-17 who participate in the 10-week program. Healthy and Active Youth makes learning about health and nutrition fun by taking kids on a variety of outings like hiking to the top of Pinnacle Mountain or touring Faulkner Lake Orchard in North Little Rock. Kids learn about portion size and how to prepare their own food, as well as take part in competitions that encourage activity and bonding opportunities.

Wells enjoys hearing about participants’ progress in the post-assessment meetings, often because they’re young and not telling her what they think she wants to hear. She hears stories about kids who never helped with meals at home or never ate certain vegetables, and by the end of the program, they tell her about the dinners they’ve helped make or the lengthy list of vegetables they’ve eaten.

“That’s what’s really great about the program, the ripples go out,” Wells says. “It doesn’t just stay with the participants. It reaches their families, younger siblings, their peers. They learn how much added sugar is in a bottle of soda and then tell their peers about that. Peer-to-peer education is the way to go. It just creates a better community.”

When it comes to her community, Wells uses her skills and experience as an RDN in a variety of ways to better the health of those around her. Another one of Baptist’s programs that Wells is passionate about is the Give Fresh program, which provides bags of fresh produce to families in high-need neighborhoods while supporting Arkansas farmers by only purchasing local produce. The families that receive the produce also receive education on how healthy eating habits will impact their individualized health assessments.

Baptist Health’s Give Fresh Program — By the Numbers

5,000 – the number of bags of fresh produce delivered by Give Fresh since it began in 2016

5 – the number of meals each bag provides

$125,000 – total cost of produce purchased from Arkansas farmers for the program in three summers

142,500 – the number of pounds of healthy, Arkansas-grown produce delivered to families in need

Since the program began in 2016, more than 5,000 bags have been given to Arkansans, which translates to 142,000 pounds of produce. One bag is intended for a family of four and lasts about five days. The program serves Little Rock, North Little Rock and the outskirts of the metro, including Conway, Altheimer, Hensley and Pine Bluff. In a state known for being among the most unhealthy in the country, Baptist is actively trying to change that narrative by providing access to fresh produce and resources to live healthier lives.

“The Give Fresh program — it’s that barrier removal,” Wells says. “It gives people access to either shop for it at one of the Baptist Health’s BHealthy Farmers Markets or have the fresh produce delivered to them. I think it is helpful with economic development for small-time farmers who want to do what they love by growing their own produce and selling it to others. It’s kind of like teaching. You probably don’t do it for the money. You do it because you love it. I think that’s very helpful to the community.”

As someone who has worked in Arkansas public schools over the years, Wells also noticed the curriculum for health isn’t getting as much attention as it did 30 years ago. Both the Give Fresh and Healthy and Active Youth programs provide opportunities for kids to be educated by professionals in their field and receive opportunities to practice what they learn.

“[Mary] has been really active with our Healthy and Active Youth program,” says Erin Childress, the special events coordinator and marketing assistant with Baptist Health Foundation. “She’s been a great help to them and helping steer that ship. Just knowing she cares so much about the programs of this organization speaks volumes of her and the mission of Baptist Health that everybody’s on board and there’s support coming from every way.”

Beyond providing access to produce and giving Arkansans the tools and knowledge to make better choices, these programs are helping people improve their health today and years from now. Baptist Health’s programs help people lessen the impacts of chronic diseases like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes — diseases that are all too prevalent within the state.

“On a cellular level, food is not only fuel for everyday metabolism and activity, but it is also information,” Wells says. “The body can be at its own best when it’s getting the best possible food information most of the time. We know that helps to reduce the incidence of chronic disease among other lifestyle factors. Food can hurt, but it can heal, too.”

Walking the Walk

Those same sustainable habits and practices Wells learned from being an RDN seamlessly weave their way into her life and her family, whether it’s encouraging her daughter to have a smoothie before a basketball game or packing up the family for a hike to the top of a snowy Mount Magazine.

“I believe that it’s the guardian’s job to provide and it’s up to the kids to decide,” she says. “So that’s where my roles mix as a mom and an RDN. I decide what we’re going to eat, I provide it and they decide whether or not they’re going to eat it. But at the same time, you provide things you know they’re going to like, which makes them more apt to try things they’re not so sure about.”

When it comes to her own health and wellness, Wells is an avid runner. She likes to start her mornings with a run with friends and breakfast. She lists off other things she’s learned as an RDN that she actively practices herself, things like drinking lots of water, incorporating strength training, eating fruits and vegetables and lean protein from either plants or animals. Both she and her husband understand the importance of living a healthy and active life, but they lead by example for their kids, encouraging healthy choices, but not mandating them.

“We’re just active people,” Wells says. “I hate to say role modeling, but it’s by default. We’ve just always been that way. He was an athlete growing up. I played basketball in junior high school and I run, but I didn’t start doing that until undergrad and not really until grad school. I had a friend who got me going regularly and training. In fact, after the first race I trained for, Troy and I had our first date that night. So I kept that T-shirt.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Continued Advocacy

Throughout her career, Wells has continued to educate herself on the changing climate of dietetics and nutrition. She regularly takes part in webinars and keeps nutrition and dietetic textbooks on her nightstand. She’s served as the president of the Arkansas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and now serves as the delegate for the academy, going to meetings in Washington, D.C. and being a mouthpiece for her fellow RDNs in the state.

It’s easy to hear her love for her community and her state when she talks. There’s a pride and a sense of duty to improve the lives of her neighbors.

Moving back to Arkansas after her time in California also brought her back to family. She and Troy are now raising their family right next door to where Wells grew up. She smiles when she remembers growing up on that long, flat street, playing in the woods behind the house, riding bikes and skateboarding with the neighborhood kids.

“I love Arkansas,” she says. “When I lived out in Southern California, I realized the things about Arkansas that I didn’t know I missed. That was part of the reason I came back, too. I wanted to switch gears professionally, and like Jimmy Buffett says, ‘change my latitude.’ I didn’t realize how much I loved and appreciated Arkansas.”

As the hour of coffee and conversation draws to a close, Wells begins to tell a story. A few years ago during summer break, she looked for an activity she could do with the kids. At the time, box turtles were starting to move around in the Wells’ front and backyards. They marked a little square on the turtle’s shells with nail polish and named the turtles after the color of the nail polish. They marked one turtle with a bright blue color called “Set Sail.”

Set Sail has now been showing up to the Wells’ home for the past three years. She’ll eat bananas and figs — but not tomatoes — from their hands and has a habit of waiting for them in their carport.

One year, when the Arkansas Heritage Commission was counting box turtles in Arkansas, the commission asked Arkansans to call and report where they saw a turtle around the state so they could log it. In the process, Wells learned box turtles don’t travel more than half a mile from where they hatch.

“I was telling my kids that, and my youngest says, ‘So mom, you’re kinda like a turtle.’”

With such a passion for others, it comes as no surprise that Wells ended up in the career she did. When asked about her favorite part of her work as an RDN, she says it’s meeting people and building relationships. As much as her field is about science and research, it’s also about those one-on-one moments with patients, asking them to be vulnerable about something that isn’t always easy to open up about — their health.

But Wells is an advocate at work and in her everyday life. She a constant advocate for her state, her field, her community, for the health of others. If home is what you make it, then it’s safe to say Wells is committed to making her home state healthier and happier, one step at a time.

Lightning Round

What’s your favorite easy, healthy weeknight recipe?

I love the bowl concept right now because it’s cold out. That might be: roasted vegetables, roasted chicken, roasted sweet potato, brown rice grits and black beans. It’s that “you provide, they decide” concept at work.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

My kids say I’ll eat anything, but I won’t. I draw the line at organ meats — liver, tongue, kidney. I can’t.

Favorite song right now?

“Houston, We Got A Problem” by Luke Combs. I love that song. He’s talking about missing his wife or girlfriend. He’s in Houston and he’s got all these great things going on around him before a concert. He’s got a bar tab downstairs, he’s got new boots, but she’s not there.

Hobbies?

Reading. Being outside with kids. I love trail running with my dog. I love all the outdoor stuff that Arkansas offers.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

“The Desert and the Sea” by Michael Scott Moore. And a clinician’s guide to eating disorders.

Who would your fantasy dinner party guests be?

My grandparents. One I never met. And my husband and my kids so they could all meet. Oh, and my parents.


30th Annual Bolo Bash Reception + Luncheon
April 16 & 17
BaptistHealthFoundation.org

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