UC Berkeley School of Public Health: Where tomorrow’s Public Health Nutrition leaders are made

Public Health Nutrition specialists are leaders in developing and implementing programs and policies to support population health through nutrition. With 10.5% of U.S. households facing food insecurity and 22% of children globally experiencing stunting, the need for experts in Public Health Nutrition is significant.

UC Berkeley School of Public Health has recognized this need, and recently launched a Public Health Nutrition concentration as part of its renowned 27-month Online MPH program. The program allows working professionals from around the world to study Public Health Nutrition in place, and complements the existing long-standing in-residence Public Health Nutrition master’s program.

We know that access to nutritious diets is critical for child growth and development and long-term population health. However, the foods people eat are often driven by their environment and where they are born, live, learn, work, and age. These social determinants of nutrition impact nutrition-related health disparities and the risk of chronic disease. At UC Berkeley, students in the Public Health Nutrition Concentration are connected to thought leaders across many different disciplines to learn and develop solutions to these issues at a systems level.

In addition to offering world-class education in the classroom, the Public Health Nutrition MPH degree programs also place emphasis on experiential learning by guiding their students through a practicum. Take, for example, Jenna Segal, an alumna of the in-residence Public Health Nutrition MPH offering, who worked with the Public Health Institute on a project related to food access and farm-to-school for her practicum.

“This opportunity turned into a temporary job with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which opened many career doors for me,” she said. After graduating, she managed a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Grant, established a consulting business and worked on various projects in the SF Bay Area to advance Farm to Institution Efforts. Within a year, she was hired by USDA’s Office of Community Food Systems as a Farm to School Regional Lead.

She’s been with USDA for seven years now. “I have worked to advance Farm to School efforts, urban agriculture initiatives, and the development of local and regional food systems. I have worked with the USDA at the Food and Nutrition Service’s Office of Community Food Systems, at USDA’s Farm Service Agency as an Outreach Specialist, and now at USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service as an Agricultural Marketing Specialist in the Local and Regional Foods Division,” she says. “Professionally, I have continued to grow by joining the board of directors at several different agriculture-based non-profit organizations and have taken leadership roles within the federal government.”

Similarly, Orli Rabin, a current Online MPH student in the Public Health Nutrition concentration, completed her practicum at the SF VA Medical Center which involved a significant project for patients with Hashimoto’s disease at the women’s clinic. For this project, Rabin created a dietary resource that provided patients with personalized recommendations to improve their nutrition and overall health. “This project has had a real impact on the patients I worked with, and I feel grateful to have been able to apply my newfound knowledge, specifically in mass communication, in such a practical and meaningful way,” she says.

The San Francisco VA Medical Center and Public Health Institute are just two examples of partners Public Health Nutrition students have worked with for their practicums. Locally, students have the opportunity to complete their practicum experience with one of UC Berkeley’s long-standing partners of the PHN program like Nourish CA, Berkeley Food Institute, or the Nutrition Policy Institute. Students can also work with the Berkeley Public Health Career and Leadership Office to find the perfect practicum opportunity or build their own.

The opportunity to choose either a residential or distance learning modality provides students with the experience best suited for them. Being based in California, which has a huge agricultural sector, is a great benefit of enrolling in the residential MPH at UC Berkeley. “Public Health Nutrition alumni are doing critical policy and programmatic work related to agriculture, food, and nutrition that they started here in-state while they were in school,” says Assistant Research Professor Dr. Hannah Thompson. “Having this personal exposure to the workings of our state’s agricultural system and policies during graduate studies is one of the reasons why lots of Berkeley alumni go on to do incredible things.”

The online program offers students a chance to learn in place from their own communities, and on their own schedule, as well. “Online courses are typically taught following an asynchronous format, meaning students can complete the coursework each week at a time that is convenient for them, and our students typically only take one or two courses at a time so that they are not overwhelmed with a full school load on top of their workload or other personal obligations,” explains Sarah Zyba, the faculty lead for the Public Health Nutrition concentration within the On-campus/Online MPH program.

Dr. Zyba, Dr. Thompson, and the rest of their colleagues work tirelessly to keep virtual learners engaged through discussion boards, live discussion sessions, video conferences, Q&A forums, and by regularly inviting guest speakers from industry and government organizations who provide students with real-world examples from current events related to course topics.

Curriculum in both the online and in-residence programs incorporate findings from the latest research. For instance, Public Health Nutrition faculty recently found that the purchase of sugar sweetened beverages dropped 26% after the implementation of local sugary drink taxes. Another study recently explored interventions to improve high school students’ perceptions of and participation in school lunch programs. Dr. Barbara Laraia has been exploring barriers to healthy eating and found that the resource of time needs to be considered as an intervention strategy for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). At Berkeley Public Health, the Public Health Nutrition faculty and staff work closely together to provide students with the tools and knowledge to be leaders in Public Health Nutrition.

This article was originally published on the Study International website. Reprinted with permission.

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