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Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan, professor of rural health and director of the Center for Indigenous Health Research and Policy

The Cowboy Way: Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Media Contact: Mack Burke | Associate Director of Media Relations | 405-744-5540 |

Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan, professor of rural health and director of the Center for Indigenous Health Research and Policy at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, is currently serving on two prestigious national advisory committees — one determining the country’s dietary guidelines and the other looking at how health care disparities have changed in the last 20 years.

Jernigan, a member of the Choctaw Nation who has a doctorate in public health, serves on a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine examining the current state of racial and ethnic health care disparities in the U.S. 

The 18-member committee is working to update the Unequal Treatment Report and examine how health care has changed since the report was first published in 2003.

“It was a huge report and a landmark study. Scientists and health professionals looked at equity in health care in the U.S.,” said Jernigan, who remembers reading the report when she was studying public health.

The report impacted medical and health care curriculum across the country and launched training programs on diversity and bias in health care.

“It was quite a change in how we were learning,” she said. “I’m a person who works and lives where those disparities are happening. We need more equity in rural and tribal health where disparities are most significant.”

Jernigan is also serving on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee.

She is the first Indigenous person to serve on the DGA committee, which reviews current nutrition science and develops an independent report with science-based advice for the USDA and HHS to consider. The report, along with public comments and agency input, will be used to develop the next set of dietary guidelines for the United States.

“I do a lot of work and research in the field of indigenous food systems and nutrition programs. Indigenous food systems have not been represented on this committee until now,” she said. “In the past, some cultural viewpoints and backgrounds have been left out when developing these guidelines. This time around, a real effort was made to get people from a number of diverse backgrounds and cultures to serve on the committee.”

Photo by: Phil Shockley

Story by: Sara Plummer | STATE Magazine

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