March is National Nutrition Month. Throughout the month, USDA will be highlighting results of our efforts to improve access to safe, healthy food for all Americans and supporting the health of our next generation.
Until 6 months ago, I was a typical academic. I spent most of my time doing research on obesity. Apart from a few years in consulting between college and graduate school, my entire career has been in a university. Since so much of my research aims to inform policy, I decided it was time for me to see how decisions actually get made. This past summer, I had the good fortune of being selected to the White House Fellowship – a fantastic year-long program which provides an intimate view of federal policy making. Each fellow is placed in the executive branch, and my home for this year is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). At USDA, I work as a Senior Policy Advisor to Under Secretary Kevin Concannon in Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. This is a great fit for me since USDA – among other things – oversees the suite of federal nutrition assistance programs that help low-income families (including mine when I was a young child) put food on the table in times of need.
To be frank, I thought I would love the experience and hate government. From my outsider perspective, government seemed clunky, inefficient and bloated with too many people doing redundant work. I was completely wrong.
First off, there is an unmistakable passion and compassion for helping others which has blown me away. This sentiment is top-down and bottom-up, permeating all of USDA and fostering strong stewardship of the nutrition assistance programs. I remember sitting in on a meeting where several former recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) shared their personal stories with Secretary Vilsack; none were unique but all were heart-wrenching. The most memorable was a woman who described being homeless, living in her car with her three children, and relying on SNAP so her family did not run out of food. At the end, Secretary Vilsack said “I hear you and this is what we are doing to help.” Another memorable moment was watching Secretary Vilsack testify in front of the Senate Appropriations committee. When asked to reflect on his time as Secretary, he talked about how honored he was to have been able to use the platform to improve the lives of rural Americans. I also recall watching Under Secretary Concannon return from numerous trips around the country saying – “let me tell you what I saw” – using it as an opportunity for his team to lift up what was working and improve what was not. Under Secretary Concannon always included anecdotes of people he met along the way (such as kindergarteners at school breakfast or adults at emergency supper sites stopping for dinner on their way home from work). This human element serves as a constant reminder of the importance of this work which touches tens of millions of Americans each day. I have also been struck by the commitment of the career staff to the mission of providing healthy and nutritious food to Americans in need. With each new president, new political appointees are brought in at the top levels of the federal government. This constant turnover in leadership requires the career staff to provide critical institutional memory to bridge administrations and maintain the programs during times of transition.
Second, people at USDA are talented and work extremely hard. They could easily make many multiples of their salaries elsewhere, but have chosen a career in public service. Government may seem large from the outside – and it definitely is – but my experience is that for any given issue area the teams are thin with most people having a “wheel house” or “lane” for which they are uniquely responsible. This requires people to be very good at their job and work tirelessly to get everything done. The added benefit is that it also creates a strong collaborative environment. This jumped out at me as soon as I arrived at USDA. As I set out to learn more about USDA’s role in feeding children and families in need, I was surprised to learn that there was no single source which documented these efforts. So, I talked to lots of people. During just about every conversation, I was referred to someone else who could add to the story in a meaningful way. Coming from my career in academia, where I have had the privilege of training and working at top institutions, I am accustomed to working with smart, industrious people. But the joke in academia is that you are “herding cats” since professors commonly march to the beat of their own drum. Academia is also criticized for not being particularly fast-paced, although that is not always the case. In contrast, I have repeatedly watched people at USDA work together efficiently and effectively – with everyone marching to the same steady drum-beat to foster progress.
The third surprise is that government can be creative and even nimble. Prior to this experience, I assumed that government jobs (including high-ranking ones) were highly prescriptive and lacked opportunities for creativity. This was actually one of my biggest hesitations about joining the federal government since I love the freedom in academia to be imaginative. I have been proven wrong on countless occasions. For example, one key way that USDA has strengthened the nutrition safety net is by scaling local innovation such as the national implementation of a program started in Philadelphia which greatly reduced administrative burden for high-poverty schools while increasing access to school meals for low income children. Another example was the response to the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan where I watched senior policy makers at USDA strategize with lawyers across the federal government to identify effective ways to lend a hand within the confines of the law. This agility has real impact in real time, much more than I could ever expect to have from academia.
It’s so easy to look at big government organizations like USDA and be skeptical, particularly with the real dysfunction which exists elsewhere in government. I often find myself thinking that if Americans could only witness the thoughtful, timely, and deliberate process at USDA, they might be less doubtful. In the absence of that experience, please take my word for it. When it comes to ending hunger and improving nutrition for Americans, USDA is truly a good steward of tax payer dollars and protector of the nation’s nutrition safety net. I have no doubt that Americans are better off because of USDA’s tireless efforts to help in times of need.
After this experience, I will likely return to an academic life focused on research. I look forward to using that platform as an opportunity to provide empirical evidence to future policy discussions about the important impacts of USDA’s nutrition assistance programs on the nation’s wellbeing. And I will be sure to suspend my disbelief (at least briefly) about the perceived inefficiencies in the federal government. I hope others might do the same.
About the blogger: Prior to the White House Fellowship, Dr. Sara Bleich was as Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has degrees from Columbia University (BA in Psychology) and Harvard University (PhD in Health Policy).