It’s been more than a decade since the Kern County Public Health Services Department has staffed a full-time nutritionist, but that changed recently.  

Recognizing a growing need, the department filled the position in December, hiring Aaron Stonelake, who graduated from California State University Fresno with a degree in dietetics before returning to his hometown of Bakersfield last year. He will earn about $57,000 annually. 

Stonelake will play a pivotal role in the community, working to address rising rates of obesity, which can lead to chronic health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke, among other issues.

“The reason we brought the position back is because nutrition plays such a key role in our overall health,” Kern County Assistant Public Health Director Brynn Carrigan said. “We want to be much more preventative instead of responsive to our poor disease rates here in Kern County. If we can start equipping our community with nutrition education and assistance, then we can curb that chronic disease rate.”

Kern County ranks second highest among all California counties for obesity, public health officials said. Stonelake puts the blame squarely on diet.

“I think the biggest contributors are sugary beverages, easy access to pastries, candies and sweets, and our society contributing to those being easy snacks you can eat on the go, and we’re a go-go-go society,” Stonelake said, adding that increasingly sedentary lifestyles compound the obesity problem.

Stonelake will spend his days getting involved with the community, hosting free workshops teaching people how to read nutrition labels, filming videos teaching people how to shop healthy on a budget, and taking part in a program where public health officials go into the homes of people affected by chronic diseases to help them improve their health, Carrigan said.

“He has lots of things on his list,” Carrigan said.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce