Grace L. Ostenso (1932 – 2020) was known as a pioneering leader in a unique sphere for a dietitian and nutritionist. Her career included a broad range of science, technology, and public policy positions. She was recognized by friends and colleagues as nutrition policy forerunner and an inspiration to her students and colleagues with her work over four decades.
Many recognize that her contributions in enabling food programs are still key today to helping children and low-income women and families with food and nutrition. In 1970 until 1978, she assumed and held the Directorship of the Nutrition and Technical Services Division of the Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While at USDA, she worked with the design and implementation of large food programs and oversaw school nutrition programs. She helped develop aspects of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program that began in 1972 and was involved with the food and nutrition for the federal food stamp programs. The programs that she helped to oversee accounted for one-third of USDA’s budget.
Grace and her husband Ned, a renowned National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Scientist, supported the local community, including the National symphony amongst many other cultural events. Since Ned spent much of his time working on board NOAA ships in Antarctica, Greenland or Alaska, many friends went with Grace to music events. They were good friends with Ned’s mentor from the American Geophysical Union, the noted member Waldo E. Smith. Ned said that they enjoyed their good company and views of the world. Grace and Ned were also known by friends for enjoying a martini together when they got home from demanding jobs. After Ned’s early death, Donna Porter, a friend and registered dietitian who also worked on the hill, was always there for Grace, and they attended concerts together. Donna supplied much of the background research and findings Grace needed for her positions.
Grace’s Wisconsin nieces noted that they were fairly young when Grace was in D.C. working, so they didn’t realize at the time exactly what she was doing, but they knew it was important. As children, they were in awe of both Ned and Grace, especially when they recounted to their parents and older siblings their adventures and work life. Their family was very proud of Grace’s accomplishments.
One of Grace’s major successes with the science committee, and there were many accomplishments, was adapting computer applications to food systems. When she started in the early 1980s, Grace was Staff Director of the Subcommittee of Science, Research and Technology of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology for the US House of Representatives. At that time, The National Science Foundation (NSF) was developing its Supercomputer Centers program and Grace oversaw the authorization of NSF legislation. According to Larry Smarr, Director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, “Dr. Ostenso’s contributions were a key factor in the NSF Supercomputer Centers becoming a reality.”
House of Representative members and many friends commented that in Grace’s position on the Science Committee in the House of Representatives, she managed to focus on positive outcomes of bills for the American people, not on partisanship. Grace did an enormous amount of good for the country and indeed for all of humanity, said Johanna Dwyer, her good friend and Senior Nutrition Scientist at NIH.
“Over her distinguished career Grace was one of the highest-ranking staff members ever who was also a dietitian and nutrition scientist. She loved working with Congress and conveyed this love to those in the field of nutrition science and dietetics.” House staffers said she was devoted to Representative George Brown, Calif. and the members and staff of the science committee. She often said if he wasn’t running or re-elected, she wouldn’t want to keep her position. However, friends also noted that she thought Sherrod Brown of Ohio was a real shining light among the then younger members. Notable in today’s world, she taught others by example just how Congress worked and how to get things done on the Hill. Another colleague said Grace was a trailblazer in advancing nutrition policy to benefit consumer health and to enhance the practice of dietetics.
Following sixteen years as a professional staff member of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives, Grace retired from the position of Staff Director, Subcommittee on Science, in 1995. She became a Senior Nutrition Advisor, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a science consultant to various agencies and organizations.
Her family cherished Ned and Grace’s visits as they didn’t visit often. When her nieces “…visited Grace, she welcomed us and treated us to dinner, the zoo, and museums, leaving lasting memories. She had a wonderful sense of humor and we can remember her smile after she said something witty. To three young Midwest girls, Grace was fashionable, professional, and so smart. You can just imagine us gawking at her in admiration and wonder.”
Grace received both the M.S. degree in Foods and Nutrition and a Ph.D. in Food Administration and Nutrition with a minor in Industrial Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early sixties. After graduating with her doctoral degree, she became an Assistant Professor, Department of Foods and Nutrition, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Grace spoke lovingly of her connections to UW Stout, her undergraduate school, and UW Madison and spent many years on the Board of Directors of Stout. Her legacy has continued through her niece, Karen Ostenso, a food and nutrition instructor and director of undergraduate dietetics program at the University of Wisconsin – Stout Campus. Today, Karen states she admired her aunt for her many pioneering accomplishments and contributions to public health policy while a staff member on Capital Hill. Karen said, “Much of her work has focused on U.S. policy related to agriculture, food, nutrition and health, as well as supporting the sciences.” Joann Steyer, RD, tells of a meeting she had that included Grace in her USDA position when Joann was taking over a 2 million dollar deficit as the new county School Lunch Director. She and Grace were the only two women at the meeting and hadn’t seen each other since their time together at Stout. Needless to say , ,, it was unexpected, but each knew what they were talking about and the program was allowed to work its way out of the deficit.
Additionally, there have been two American Association for the Advancement of Science Grace L. Ostenso Nutrition and Public Policy Fellows in conjunction with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation. In requesting the AAAS Fellows program for the Foundation, Grace felt it was critical to forward the thinking of the association and its members. The two Ostenso Fellows shared about their experiences.
“Coming from a family where both my parents immigrated from China, I did not grow up talking about politics or understanding the governmental process. Grace Ostenso’s fellowship allowed me to witness firsthand how policies that support nutrition programs for low-income families can reach those most in need,” said Lauren Au, PhD, RD. “My year working in the U.S. Senate allowed me to become a better and more informed researcher and educator, and I will carry these lessons with me through my career.” In 2020 at FNCE®, Lauren presented her WIC research findings. She is currently on faculty at UC Davis.
Leigh Gantner, PhD, RD, who works at USDA and noted, “I think an important lesson I learned from her is that when you work in public service, there are going to be a lot of ups and downs. There will be times when you feel like you are advancing public policy and improving the nutrition of Americans, and other times when you feel like your goals have been stalled. But the great thing about devoting your life to public service is that you have time to wait for those windows of opportunity when you can make a real difference….just like Grace.”