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Vital Stories

Healthy Food Policy Fellows: Meet the People Who Are Building a Community Across Disciplines and Time Zones

Bloomberg Philanthropies hosts the Food Policy External Advisory Committee, in New York, April 3, 2023. (Photo by Ron Antonelli)

Embarking on a Ph.D. can be a challenging and sometimes lonely endeavor. When Vital Strategies launched its Healthy Food Policy Fellowship to address the dearth of research expertise in food policy in Latin America, the Caribbean and South Africa, the aim was to make that process more personally and professionally connected.

“The goal of the program is not just to support fellows to pursue fields of study that will enable them to contribute to healthier food environments in their home countries,” said Pallavi Puri, Vital Strategies’ Food Policy Program Communication Manager. “We also want to make sure that our fellows are mentored and have the benefits that come with being part of a strong network.”

As the first cohort of Healthy Food Policy Fellows prepare to graduate, the program’s 12 Ph.D. candidates convened in New York for the first time, to swap ideas, brainstorm about research opportunities and forge a common bond across time zones and borders.

After convening online since the program’s start in 2020, the fellows met face-to-face with each other, researchers in their fields and the team at Vital Strategies and Bloomberg Philanthropies, which funds the program. Over the course of a week, they forged new friendships, unleashed ideas for collaboration and were able to assess how their individual pursuits aligned with ongoing global research.

“The best part of the fellowship program is that you have a network that helps you. We work towards a common goal,” said Stephanie Whiteman, a fellow from Trinidad and Tobago. “You can learn from peer countries and obtain a community feeling within the fellowship.”

There is a broad range of disciplines and research topics represented among the fellows, including health economics, food marketing regulations, nutritional epidemiology and the accessibility of healthy food options, to name a few. Funding from the Food Policy Fellows program, all agreed, was instrumental in allowing them to pursue the fields of study that will have an impact on the food systems and policies in their home countries.

During their week in New York, the fellows also learned about how to disseminate their research results through social media and how to generate a broader audience through articles and blogs.

“We saw how much the week in New York did to form professional connections and a sense of community,” said Puri. “We believe this is something we should pursue in the future to emphasize the feeling that they are a part of something.”

“Normally a Ph.D. experience is very singular—it’s just you on your path,” said Shaniek Parks, a fellow from Jamaica. “It’s lovely to know that people are on a similar path, albeit using different questions to deal with the same problems that we have in the Caribbean. Meeting the fellows has made me feel like I’m part of a home.”

Meet the 12 Food Policy Fellows

Joanna Cruz, Brazil, studying at the Nova School of Business and Economics, Lisbon

My research is focused on the rule of law in promoting healthy food. By coming together within a network of specialists, the fellowship made me realize how my own research can build upon the knowledge they are already building. I’ll apply the importance of network collaboration between academics and policymakers toward my future work in healthy food policy.

Evelyn Marlene Núñez González, Mexico, studying at Sussex University

The barriers that [my research] identifies have to do with public policy and the power structures that exist in my country, Mexico. There are barriers that are linked to corruption, conflict of interest and the interventions of industry in public policy decisions related to food policy. After my fellowship, I would like to systemize the findings [of my research in marketing] to share with decision-makers, so that not only in Mexico but throughout the region allies of the global food policy initiative may advance these policies. 

Nicolas Guzman, Colombia, studying at John Hopkins University

My research is focused on health economics. That is one of the challenges we face in public health: the balance between economic interests and health. Whenever there’s discussion of health policy, economic arguments are put on the table. My favorite part of the fellowship is the mountain of ideas. I’ve had the opportunity to go to one of the great universities, and to get to know experts in the field. To be able to hear their insights has been magnificent for my education, both as a professional and as a person.

Alice Khan, South Africa, studying at University of the Western Cape

My Ph.D. focuses on the school food environment in South Africa. Specifically, I’m looking at adolescents and their understanding of healthy and unhealthy, their perceptions of food marketing in and around the school environment, as well as using that as an opportunity to do media literacy and engage them in some youth action participatory research. It’s been great to make the connections amongst the fellows. I feel like we have really connected and have found pockets where we can work together.

Shajoe Lake, Jamaica, graduated with LLM from Georgetown University.

The fellowship allows me to look at the full range of health policies that are a priority in my country: marketing restrictions, regulating school food environments, implementing sugary drinks taxes. My fellowship created an opportunity to focus on important challenges, and to look at how they are linked to equity. As a fellow, I’ve learned the importance of interdisciplinary work, and what political economy can bring to the table.

Ornella Moreno Mattar, Colombia, studying at Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona

My project focuses on front-of-package warning labels [on ultra-processed foods]. In Colombia, the policy has been adopted, but now it must be implemented adequately to ensure that the public understands and complies with the policy. The biggest challenge that this policy faces in Colombia is legitimacy and compliance. It’s important that citizens not only look at the package [warning labels] and see what they’re saying, but that they understand what it’s trying to teach them. It’s teaching you how to take care of yourself.

Trish Muzenda, South Africa, studying at Cambridge University

The fellowship [gathering] made me realize where the gaps are in research, and how my research [in nutrition policy] fits into the overall opus of the Food Policy Program. We have research coming from different parts of the world: Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. One of key takeaways from the program is the need for collaboration amongst the fellows themselves. We are all doing different research. It is particularly important that we learn lessons from different regions, share best research practices and share our findings.

Claudia Nieto, Mexico, Visiting Fellow at the University of North Carolina

My fellowship focuses on marketing regulations. Children and adolescents are exposed to digital food marketing, and it is really aggressive in Mexico. We aim to see an association between children’s exposure and healthy food consumption. The program has allowed me to see how in different countries we can learn from each other and see similarities in our research. It is interesting to see how all the focus countries are aligned, and it would be amazing to see our results and our evidence translate into recommendations for policymakers.

Shaniek Parks, Jamaica, studying at Oxford University

The fellowship is giving me the opportunity to answer one big question: How do we manage the obesity epidemic? I believe the use of communication technology has a big role to play. Digital media is one of those areas where marketing is unrestricted to people of different ages. I want to use my understanding of communication to look at how this exposure affects people and their choices about what to eat in order to create new ideas and strategies, and to provide policymakers with a tool kit they can use when creating policy.

Rasheed Perry, Jamaica, studying at New York University

The fellowship has opened me up to the various pillars which guide positive development in the food system. We have been through a lot of discussions, talks and meetings with other experts. I now have a clear understanding of what needs to be done and some of the strategies that we can implement as young people coming into the field to change policy. We need to have healthy policies, but we need effective strategies that take us there.

Jenny Faisury Peña Varón, Colombia, studying at Universidad Del Valle

The policy area that I work on is healthy surroundings and healthy cities. I want to understand the health of the city in which I live, and how it’s related to the availability and accessibility of natural foods. In other words, the relationship between urban development and healthy food. Access to healthy food is a fundamental right.

Stephanie Whiteman, Trinidad and Tobago, studying at the University of the West Indies, Barbados

My thesis is on the availability and accessibility of healthy food options in the Caribbean. Being able to have enough professionals in this space to push policy and force decision-makers to create healthy food policies has been a challenge. Another challenge has to do with the lack of policy being implemented in Barbados and the Caribbean. We have very limited data to [guide] policies. With this fellowship, I’ll be able to build some of that data and fill this gap.

The Vital Strategies Healthy Food Policy Fellowship aims to address a critical barrier to building a healthier food environment—the dearth of research expertise to guide life-saving policies. Funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the fellowship supports outstanding Ph.D. candidates who are residents of Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico or South Africa and are committed to pursuing a field of study and research that will enable them to contribute to healthier food environments through public policy.