So You Want a Career in Food Policy? A Few Tips

Seems like I’ve been getting more emails lately from strangers asking me for career advice. While I am flattered anyone thinks I have something to offer in this regard, I find it difficult to take time to answer such broad questions like, Should I go to law school or get a public health degree? How did you get into this work? Where can I find jobs in food policy? Or, from an actual email from an undergrad after a recent talk: “What advice could you give me regarding what my next internship/career/research directions could be?”

So instead of continuing to let these sorts of inquiries collect virtual dust in my inbox, I am resorting to an admittedly less-than-ideal but better-than-nothing solution of writing this generic answer. Here are a few pointers, molecules of wisdom, etc, all of which should be taken with more than one salty grain.

My path will not be your path.
It doesn’t really matter how I got into this work but suffice to say it was far from traditional. I made it up as I went along, before there was such a thing called the food movement, inspired mostly by Marion Nestle. I spent years earning hardly any money, because the field of food politics will still so nascent. The good news is, you probably won’t have to resign yourself to a life of poverty as there are so many more projects to get involved with now than when I started in the late 1990s.

You don’t need a law degree to do policy (but it helps).
Here is a secret law schools don’t want you to know: You learn very little there that is relevant in the real world. Thus, you have to learn all the useful stuff later, especially related to food. You will be lucky to get one course on food in law school, and that one will be only on the Food and Drug Administration. There are exceptions at schools that specialize, such as the University of Arkansas. Also, more joint public health/law programs are forming and this can be a great way to combine these two interests.

So what is law school good for? Learning the language of law, like understanding the difference between a statute and a regulation, and being able to intelligently read a court decision. Having a law degree has certainly opened doors for me and given me a certain level of respect as an expert. But is that worth three years of your life and coming out thousands of dollars in debt? Only you can decide that. I certainly know plenty of smart people in food policy who are not lawyers. And they may even be better for it.

Out of law school? Choose policy or litigation.
If you’re fresh out of law school, or looking to enter the food arena as a recovering lawyer, it helps to decide if your path is policy or litigation and plan your early jobs accordingly. Do you know you want to sue the food industry or do impact litigation (like suing government agencies)? Then get some basic litigation skills under your belt even if it means slaving away at a law firm for a few years.

If you’re more cut out for policy work, then look for entry jobs either in government or with advocacy groups. It doesn’t matter if these jobs have nothing to do with food (they probably won’t), the point is to develop applicable skills. Most groups are looking for lawyers with specific skills and experience applicable to food and agriculture, such as local land use, drafting legislation, or lobbying. Meantime, try to volunteer or otherwise stay involved in food issues until the right opportunity comes along.

Public health law is a growing field.
While it’s obviously a tough job market right now, the good news is that certain arenas related to food policy are growing and public health law is one of them. For example, the Network for Public Health Law just announced several new positions funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has taken a strong interest in this field. See also the Public Health Law Center and Public Health Law and Policy, two groups that go great work on food policy, among other issues.

Network, but be specific and respectful.
I know, networking advice is obvious, but it’s true more now than ever. But by networking I don’t mean just sending out email messages asking for job search help. Be selective and make meaningful contact. As I said, I can’t answer every email I get asking for career advice. But I may be able to answer a very specific question tied to a very specific interest. Like, who is working on marketing to children? Or, which law firms are engaged in litigation? If someone has referred you, say so, as that can help. Also, be respectful of people’s time and don’t send overly long emails. In fact, I’d rather if you asked for ten minutes on the phone than expect a long email reply. (But everyone is different this way.)

There is no one correct career path.
I find I have to repeat this one a lot. I cannot tell you which degree to get or what your first job should be. You have to experiment and follow your heart. You also have to trust that there is no such thing as a wrong choice, as nothing is forever. I’ve made plenty of twists and turns along the way. When I went to college I thought I’d become a geneticist. Turned out I hated counting fruit flies. The point is, your career will find its own way and it will turn out fine. It’s an exciting time to be in this field. Good luck!

If folks have other words of wisdom, please add your comments.

One Response to “So You Want a Career in Food Policy? A Few Tips”

  1. h says:

    I graduated with a dual degree in public policy & nutrition from a state school. i took an entry level position as an administrative assistant in the state agency that implements nutrition policy (NSLP,CACFP, FMNP etc.)
    I made it VERY clear that I was interested in more than being a secretary. i learned about the programs, I read the federal register, essentially – I tried to shine. eventually my supervisors noticed, and I was fast tracked. basically, you degree helps but passion and dedication is what matters. I don’t gave a masters or a JD, but my drive has helped me immensely! be focused on your dream, have mentors (like ms Simon and ms nestle) read read read!! be informed, have opinions

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