If you want to change food traditions, teach the grandmothers new ways of doing things. That’s exactly what Virginia (Val) Hillers ’83 did to dramatically decrease the incidence of food-borne illness among Hispanic populations in central Washington.
The retired Extension food specialist and WSU alumna received the CAHNRS Women’s History Award for Professional and Academic Leadership in 2006 for a 30-year career dedicated to educating consumers about how they can protect themselves and their families from food-borne illness.
And, in 2009, Hillers was inducted into the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences Hall of Honored Alumni in acknowledgement of her dedication to furthering our knowledge of food safety and its relationship with cultural practices.
“When I began,” Hillers said, “people were really complacent about food-borne illness. They saw it as a temporary thing, like the flu, that wasn’t too serious.”
An incident in 1993 changed all that. That was the year four children died of and hundreds more were treated for food poisoning after eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef at a Seattle-area Jack in the Box restaurant.
“That was a tremendous wake-up call that what we were talking about was much more dangerous than 24-hour flu,” said Hillers. “At first, the focus was ‘government needs to fix this.’ Government regulations are very important, but you cannot legislate away food-borne pathogens. Everybody has a responsibility.”
Following the 1993 outbreak, Hillers’ work focused in part on how to cook ground meat safely. She became a missionary for using instant-read thermometers and cooking all meats to recommended temperatures.
Hillers turned her attention to the way queso fresco, or “fresh cheese,” is made by Hispanic families. The delicacy is traditionally made from unpasteurized milk and a serious consequence of the way it’s made is a high incidence of food poisoning.
Hillers directed a team of WSU researchers to find a safe alternative for making queso fresco, using pasteurized milk. In addition to disseminating the information generally, she created a special education program for Latina grandmothers or abuelas. In a matter of months, Hillers was able to document a decrease in food-borne illness in the target community. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prints both Spanish and English version of her work for distribution at health fairs throughout the U.S.
“I’m very much interested in the way people tick,” she said. “Behavior makes a difference and I want to know how people can be convinced to stay healthy.”
Although retired and living on Whidbey Island since 2004, Hillers has remained active. She finished a research project for the USDA focused on food-borne illnesses in people with compromised immune systems and was editor of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior for a year and a half. Now she’s serving as a volunteer on the Island County Planning Commission, deliberating and making recommendations to the county commissioners about planning ordinances.
“The planning commission is something completely different from what I’ve done before,” Hillers said. “But my training still serves me, in that I can analyze data and help find middle ground.”
“I spent 45 years working in the land-grant tradition. Now, five years out, I really see what it means to be a Coug. There’s a tremendous respect for WSU as a knowledge base.”