Nneka Shoulds, also known as Nek the Nutritionist, is a Baltimore-based Nutrition Educator who works with low-income families, people of color, and disadvantaged communities to empower them to make healthier lifestyle choices. She recently graduated from Maryland University of Integrative Health with a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Integrative Health. Now she’s putting in work to build up her business, her brand, and her community!
Read our interview with Nneka below to find out how she uses her passion and education to improve black health.
Tell us about your background and how it led you to the nutrition field.
I saw a segment on Oprah about how the rates of HIV/AIDS were increasing in Black women and I was just like, that’s it, I need to help out with this! I got my first job as an HIV Test Counselor at a small nonprofit in Baltimore. We would drive around in this huge mobile home and park in neighborhoods and ask people to come on to get tested for HIV.
That’s how I got to see the real Baltimore – how people really live, the abandoned homes, and the dilapidated buildings.
Baltimore also has a huge food desert issue. There are more corner stores and liquor stores than grocery stores in a lot of these neighborhoods. That’s how people eat, even me, those were my food options too while I was at work!
Around that time, I was also having a lot of health concerns because I was just out of college and putting on a lot of weight. I was looking at options to change my own diet and I became vegetarian. I just learned a lot more about nutrition and I realized that was a passion for me.
How did you develop this career path?
My interest started growing around food and nutrition. I was learning how to prepare vegetarian meals and getting feedback from my friends that my food was really good and that I had a talent in this area. People were even asking me to teach them. Still, it took a while for me to build up my confidence.
I got to the point where I really wanted to turn this passion into a career, but I wasn’t hearing back from any jobs that I applied to. I realized I needed to go back to school. As soon as I went to school, the floodgates opened and opportunities just started coming my way! For my practicum during my master’s program, I was teaching nutrition in urban areas. Then I was teaching nutrition in Head Start programs for low-income parents and in court-mandated drug rehab programs. I started getting invited to do cooking demonstrations at schools, just all sorts of opportunities presented themselves.
How do you use social media to educate people on healthy living and eating?
Instagram is definitely my main platform. I go so hard on focusing on the content that I post because just about every opportunity or gig I’ve gotten was through my Instagram. I really take care in what I promote and showing people what I do.
I love food and nutrition and health, and my thing is, say it with your chest! I want you to know what I’m about, and that’s why I love wearing my Black Health Matters shirt. I have a problem with the “White Savior” thing because nobody knows our culture and our food heritage like we do. Baltimore has such a huge disparity in the illnesses that the African-American community faces. Nobody is more qualified to speak on it than somebody who comes from it. So that’s why I’m like hood health – that’s me!
What are some of the challenges that people in Baltimore and other urban areas face in achieving optimal health?
The biggest challenge is that over 25% of people in Baltimore live in food deserts. A food desert is classified as an area where the distance to a supermarket is over a quarter of a mile away. You see this in low income areas, where many people have no access to a vehicle or other adequate transportation. There’s a lack of fresh healthy food options; like I said before, there are more liquor and corner stores than actual grocery stores in many neighborhoods. There’s just a general lack of food knowledge.
A lot of people have the desire to eat better but just don’t know how to make better choices.
What are your future career goals?
Right now my goal is to be a full-time health and nutrition educator. I’m really working on building up my business, my services, my clientele, and my resume so that I can do this work full-time.
What are your personal health goals?
I want to be a reflection of my message. I have my guilty pleasures and some not-so-healthy things that I still engage in, so I’m working to practice what I preach all around. I want to be the image of health, I want people to look at me and think, she knows what she’s talking about! I want to be a model of health for my community.
Last, but not least, why does black health matter to you?
Because I’m Black! I come from this. I have a family history of hypertension, diabetes, cancer, obesity…I don’t want that to become our legacy.
A lot of us just accept that we turn a certain age and we’ll be diagnosed with one of these diseases and we’ll take the medication because that’s just how it is, but we don’t have to accept that. We have a rich heritage of health – our ancestors, our grandparents, they were gardeners, farmers, and cooks. I want to work to help my community reclaim that heritage.