As a leading technical partner for the Bloomberg Philanthropies Food Policy Program, Vital Strategies has supported governments, introducing high-impact policies in Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico and South Africa. These policies create healthier food environments that empower consumers to choose healthier options, reduce consumption of unhealthy food and beverages, and improve accessibility to nutritious food.
A key component of the Food Policy program is comprehensive research and evaluation. While our work is always grounded in rigorous global and existing country evidence and resources, most countries have research gaps.
To combat this barrier and build world-class, in-country research expertise, Vital Strategies launched the Healthy Food Policy Fellowship in March 2020. It aims to create and support a pool of future leaders in research and legal capacity in our focus countries. The program awards multiple-year funding to our fellows for the duration of their Ph.D. or LL.M. program.
Three candidates— Claudia Nieto, Shajoe Lake, and Stephanie Whiteman—were selected as our first cohort of Healthy Food Policy Fellows. Currently, they are in the middle of their semester, so we decided to check in and ask some questions to lighten the midterm stress.
How is the Healthy Food Policy Fellowship helping you achieve your professional goals?
Claudia: By becoming a part of this Fellowship, I suddenly feel that I am a part of something big, which is a huge motivator. Being in the first cohort of Fellows is a reassurance that a leading global public health organization supports the research we are pursuing in Mexico to improve food policy. This is an essential step considering the health problems that Mexico is currently facing, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and COVID-19 related to Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).
Shajoe: The Fellowship provides me with the resources to pursue a cutting-edge health law program. I am being taught by global leaders in the field how to critically examine novel, cross-sectional research from a global and national perspective. It has improved my aptitude for research analysis that is essential to developing evidence-based policies in the fight against NCDs.
Stephanie: The Healthy Food Policy Fellowship has been an undeniable blessing. The Fellowship has not only helped me financially—allowing me to put all of the focus into my research—but it has also connected me to a network of other researchers and collaborators in the field. This opportunity has opened new doors for me as a budding researcher.
What are you currently studying in your semester? Can you already foresee how you would apply these skills to improve the food environment in your country?
Claudia: I am taking lectures on nutritional epidemiology, designing, of nutrition programs, advanced biostatistics, and research protocol to develop my thesis. I am learning and understanding how public health nutrition programs are designed and how and why the evaluations are done at a certain time and under specific considerations.
Shajoe: I am writing a paper that examines how developing countries can use international law, as their standard driving force, for regulating industry actors and effectively challenging the legal legitimacy of the anti-regulation arguments presented by the food industry. I am learning how to structure research papers and their hypotheses which are critical to ensure the clarity of research intention and output and the effective assessment of the hypothesis.
Stephanie: This semester, I have been concentrating on Geographic Information System (GIS) training because a part of my research focuses on the mapping of the physical food environment in Barbados. I have taken two formal Geoinformatics courses—offered by the University of West Indies (UWI) and World Health Organization—that have taught me how to do proximity analysis and create spatial distribution maps. I see myself using these skills in my Ph.D. research and hopefully beyond.
What do you aim to take away from this Fellowship?
Claudia: It is a fact that the advertising of sugary drinks and ultra-processed foods are influencing children’s and adolescent’s preferences, purchasing, and consumption. My research focuses on understanding how the exposure of the digital marketing of food and beverages is affecting children’s and adolescents’ decisions. As a secondary aim, I will look at how healthy or unhealthy those advertised food and beverages are. This evidence has the potential to contribute to the regulation of the advertising act in Mexico, which currently does not cover digital media. Nowadays, children and adolescents are spending more time on the internet—including schooling—so regulation is relevant to protect this vulnerable population.
Shajoe: For Jamaica to effectively address NCDs, the food environment has to be significantly regulated, through evidence-based policies that are defensible against industry challenges. In addition to understanding industry tactics, how to pre-empt and challenge them, my research allows me to analyze policies, around the world, that work or don’t work, and why.
Stephanie: The implementation of zoning regulations for unhealthy food outlets can improve the food environment in Barbados. My research will help identify possible food deserts and food swamps on the island that will enable me to give evidence-based suggestions for possible zoning regulations to create a healthier food environment for Barbadians.
What advice would you like to give to the applicants who plan on applying to this Fellowship?
Claudia: If you are passionate about public health and food policies, I am sure that the selection committee will notice. Be clear about your research and try to express how you think your research can contribute to food policy. Be true to yourself and your answers. In the end, and even during the process, you will notice that all the experts who interview you work for the same objective, “food policies that promote healthier food environment.”, and that in itself is awesome.
Shajoe: Research the organization to ensure that its mandates align with your goals; think critically about what you want to accomplish from the Fellowship and write down that narrative; use that narrative to guide your application and take time to ensure it gives a clear picture of who you are and your goals; and lastly, be confident in your ability and sell yourself.
Stephanie: One of the most important advice I can give is to ensure that you are passionate about the work and research you want to conduct. The decision to pursue a Ph.D. is not to be taken lightly; it is a long-term commitment. It is your passion for your cause and research that will help you shine through in your application—setting you apart.
Vital Strategies is proud to announce that the application for our Healthy Food Policy Fellows’ second cohort is now open. For more information on how to apply to the Vital Strategies Healthy Food Policy Fellowship visit: https://www.vitalstrategies.org/healthy-food-policy-fellowship/#:~:text=Vital%20Strategies’%20Healthy%20Food%20Policy,D. Applications will close at midnight (New York time) on November 27, 2020