Lessons from the Hill

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January 24, 2013 by eldavies3

Attending the Nutrition Policy Seminar in Washington, D.C. was an educational and enriching experience for me. As a future public health nutrition practitioner, I know the policies that are debated and put in place in D.C. will affect my career no matter where I ultimately settle and practice. For that reason, I feel a deepened understanding of the legislative process in general and the areas of interest and debate in nutrition policy in particular is a critical component of my training here at UNC.

By interacting with speakers from many sectors – from legislative aids and consultants, to industry employees, to representatives of governmental agencies and nonprofits– I gained a clearer perspective on current nutrition issues and initiatives, both stateside and abroad. I learned more about the Farm Bill, the shift from reactionary to preventive health strategies, and the new focus on environmental change in tackling the “obesity epidemic.” We also discussed important overarching themes of policymaking, such as conflict, collaboration, and compromise. Engaging in discussion about these topics helped me think about them in new ways.

All of this new information will surely serve me well in my future career. But I think some of the most valuable lessons that I learned in D.C. were pieces of advice given by the speakers about how to succeed in the field of public health nutrition. Here are some of the tips that I took most to heart:

 

Speak up about what you know. Or, as one speaker said, “Be an expert.” Public health can be a difficult field to describe or understand because it encompasses so many things, from ensuring the quality of our air, food, or water, to tracking diseases, to promoting healthy behaviors in a community. Furthermore, as a speaker from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention pointed out, public health is invisible when it works well because it has prevented something negative from happening. Because of these challenges, the people who work in public health must be skilled at communicating what public health actually is so that others can recognize its importance. This is especially true when working with legislators, who often have different and even competing agendas.

 

Be an advocate. As a speaker from the Food Research and Action Center pointed out, one of the core tenets of public health is social equity. All people should have access to the same levels of health regardless of factors such as age, socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, etc., and public health professionals are responsible for working toward that goal. Our speaker from the Center for Science in the Public Interest spoke further about the importance of advocacy and suggested joining professional organizations such as the American Public Health Association or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a way to better support public health nutrition initiatives.

 

Dream big, but look for small change. I think most people would agree that change is often slow in Washington. The legislative process can be tortuous, as can the process of implementing new policies across the country. By extension, small change may be the easiest to enact and should be celebrated. One speaker from the Food and Nutrition Service division of the USDA told us that, in his experience, 15% is the magic number for gaining momentum and driving change. For example, 15% of schools may need to enact a certain lunch policy on their own before it grabs national attention as an example to be followed.

 

 Find areas of consensus. One of the most engaging speakers of the entire session was a dietitian who works for a public relations firm in Washington. She often finds herself at the interface of government, public health, and industry, and her key piece of advice was to figure out where everyone’s interests intersect and use that to move forward. For instance, public interest in healthier prepared foods could be an opportunity for cooperation between public health nutritionists and food manufacturers. Even groups with highly disparate interests can work together if an area of consensus is determined.

 

I plan to keep these pieces of advice in mind as I move forward in my professional life and hope they will help me as my career progresses.

 

 

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