Author Archives: jdonovan

About jdonovan

Jeanie is entering her third year of the Master of Public Affairs and Master of Public Health dual degree program at UT. Her specific areas of interests are nutrition and agriculture policy and their impact on population health and health disparities. During her first two years in the dual-degree program, Jeanie has worked on state nutrition policy in Texas with the Center for Public Policy Priorities. This summer, Jeanie will be working on federal nutrition policy as an intern at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the Food and Nutrition Service Department (FNS). While there she hopes to gain a better understanding of the federal policies, funding, and systems that govern nutrition education programs operated by the states.

“So, How Do You Like DC?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question this summer, I’d be one rich intern.  Coworkers, friends, parents, and everyone in between have all asked.  Many have gone further to ask the more daunting question, “Are you going move to DC after graduation?”

Well the short answer to that question is, I really don’t know.  Yes, I have enjoyed my time living and working in DC, but just like any city, there are upsides and downsides to living here. So as a mental exercise for myself and as entertainment for you, I’m going to go through the pro and cons, in my opinion, of living in our nation’s capital.


1. Public Transit: The Metro system in DC is one of the best in the country. During rush hour, trains are running every 2 to 3 minutes, whisking you off to work while you sip coffee and read The Washington Post. There’s no sitting on I-10 waiting for an accident to be cleared up or fighting for a parking space at the office.

2. Policy Wonks: It’s sort of like being at the LBJ School, but scaled-up to city size. Everywhere you turn, you can find someone who wants to discuss politics, policy, or government. It is exciting to know there are so many people as passionate and interested in the same issues that you are. It also makes networking opportunities limitless.

3. Extracurriculars: DC has some fantastic restaurants, bars, professional sports teams, music venues, museums, and theaters and most of them are targeted towards the 20 to 30-something crowd.

So if you’re trying to get home after a late night out or going to meet a friend on a Saturday afternoon, sometimes you can’t help but wish you could hop in your car and drive yourself.

1. Public Transit:  Although the DC Metro will definitely get you to work and back on time (most days), the late evenings and weekends are rife with track work that severely limit and delay the frequency of tra

2. Policy Wonks: Sometimes you just don’t feel like talking about your or someone else’s work. DC never turns off the policy switch and everywhere you go;, from the gym, to happy hour, to a National’s game, people are talking about what they do and how important it is.

3. Tourists: Tourists arrive on massive tour buses and travel in packs wearing the same neon color shirt.  On weekends and holidays, they crowd the Metro, the sidewalk, and the museums. This seriously detracts from Pros #1 and #3 listed above.


Sure I’ve oversimplified a bit here, but you get the idea. Also, although this has been fun, it certainly hasn’t helped me gain any clarity on where I want to live after grad school.  I guess it’s a good thing I still have a year to figure it out.

New Federal SNAP-Ed Model: Easier Said Than Done

In my first blog post, I mentioned that I am working on the USDA SNAP nutrition education program known as SNAP-Ed. I also mentioned that recent federal legislation significantly expanded the scope of the SNAP-Ed program mission and activities. I’m going to tell you a little more about those changes and the challenges associated with making sure they happen on the ground.

Traditionally, states have used their federal SNAP-Ed funds to provide low-income children and families with lessons on how to shop for, prepare, and eat healthier meals.  The new federal regulations expand the list of “allowable uses” of SNAP-Ed funds to include policy and environmental level changes that create healthier schools, workplaces, and communities for low-income Americans. States can still use the funding for nutrition education lessons, but are encouraged to take a more holistic approach and affect change at all levels of the Social Ecological Model. So what does that really mean?



Well, it could mean a range of different things and really opens the doors for innovation by state agencies and their community-based partners.  It might mean working with public or private groups to establish a new farmers market or mobile fruit and vegetable stand in a neighborhood without a grocery store. It could mean consulting with convenience and corner store owners to increase the number of healthy options that they stock. It may mean collaborating with other organizations to establish a farm-to-school program that increases the amount of fresh, local produce served to children in public schools.  To determine the best use of funds, states agencies must assess the health needs or gaps that exist in an individual state or community.

That all sounds great, right? Well it is, except that it’s easier said than done. Many state governments and agencies have experienced cuts in their budgets and reduction in staff. This may hinder their ability to recruit and collaborate with new community-based organizations in their state. It may limit the amount of assessment a state agency can do to determine what the needs of their low-income populations truly are.  States agency staff may not be aware of the various non-profits and local entities that have the resources to implement policy and environmental level interventions.

Our job at the federal level is to provide adequate guidance and resources to improve the ability of states to successfully implement the new regulations. The federal SNAP-Ed team here at FNS has published tool kits, provided professional development tools, and released policy memos and guidance which clarify and exemplify possible new uses of the SNAP-Ed funding. This information is passed down through a network of regional and state-level administrators, who then pass information down to community-based organizations which receive grant money to implement programs.  As you can see, this is a long chain of communication and it’s likely that it will take some time for the true intent of the regulatory changes to be realized in every community where SNAP-Ed operates.

In my view, this is an illustration of the challenge of working within a federalist structure of government. Federal changes must be communicated to states that then must interpret those changes and implement in the way that makes sense for their population. Although this requires a great deal of time, effort, and error along the way, it makes sense. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for changing the health behaviors of Americans. The nutrition interventions needed in rural Arkansas are vastly different than those needed in downtown Los Angeles. It’s up to each state and locality to determine what’s best for them…within federal guidelines of course.

Office Culture and Cube Life


USDA Intern Welcome  Panel featuring LBJ School alum, Johnie Jones

USDA Intern Welcome
Panel featuring LBJ School Alum Johnie Jones

 For this entry, I originally planned to write a riveting post about the SNAP-Ed interim rule comment analysis that I’m working on, but decided to shift gears and share a bit about the day-to-day culture here at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) office.  Over the last few days, I have been reflecting on the impressive level of professionalism and congeniality that exists in the particular FNS branch in which I’m working.   I’ve also been struck by the number of culture building activities and events hosted by FNS aimed to increase awareness, respect, and quality of life among employees.

Let me start specifically with my branch, the SNAP State Administration Branch, which is currently made up of 6 employees, led by one Branch Chief.  This team has truly welcomed me with open arms and made an extra effort to include me in as many staff meetings, events, and outings as possible.  They happily answered the litany of questions that I had in the first weeks of my internship and continue to support me in understanding the various projects that we’re working on this summer.  It’s not always easy being the new person, especially the new intern, but this group has really gone out of their way to make me feel like part of the team.  After just a month, I am really feeling at home in my little cubicle.

There is a feeling of urgency that pervades our branch, but stress levels don’t (regularly) appear too high. I attribute this to the flexibility of work hours and location enjoyed by staff. Many of my coworkers are able to “telework” one day per week, meaning they work from home with their office laptop and phone connected.  Also, staff are required to work forty hours per week, but don’t have to work the regular 8am to 5pm hours.  For example, one colleague is in the office daily from 6:30am to 3:30pm, teleworks on Tuesday, and has every other Friday off. 

Employee quality of life at FNS also seems to be improved by the significant amount of culture building that occurs on formal and informal levels.  In my first month on the job, I have attended or been invited to attend formal sessions on stress management, LBGT awareness, civil rights issues, and setting health and fitness goals.  The sessions I’ve been present at have been well attended and staff seemed genuinely engaged in the issues being discussed.

Staff have also organized informal gatherings outside of work including attending a Nationals game, a weekend BBQ, and various happy hours.  Many coworkers take time in the beginning or end of the day to catch up with each other on what’s happening in each others’ lives. Most seem to authentically enjoy their work and colleagues and I know that from prior experiences (and from chatting with friends in other internships), that this is not the case in all offices. That being said, I feel truly fortunate to have landed in this particular cubicle, in this particular office, even if just for a summer.

Settling in at USDA

Hi all! I’m officially two weeks into my internship at the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  My office is located just outside of D.C. in Alexandria, VA, and I’ve finally started to figure out my way around town and the massive building that I work in. So what exactly will I be doing at USDA this summer? My work at FNS will be primarily focused on the federal nutrition education program called SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed).

Did you catch all of those acronyms?  I’ll try to not to bore you with too much bureaucratic lingo, but I want to give you a sense of exactly what I’ll be focused on this summer.  SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program) serves over 47 million low-income Americans in the form of electronic benefits that can be redeemed for food at most grocery outlets. While there are few restrictions on the types of food items that can be purchased with SNAP benefits, the federal government is focused on improving the nutrition of SNAP recipients.  To do so, Congress appropriates funds ($285 million in FY 2013) to SNAP-Ed, which USDA distributes to states according to the funding allocation prescribed by statute. Each state, in turn, implements its own unique version of the SNAP-Ed program.

While states do have flexibility in how they run their program, as with any federal grant program, there are many guidelines, regulations, and reporting requirements that state agencies must adhere to.  In fact, many of the rules and regulations were recently altered significantly by federal legislation, meaning that there is a lot of education that must occur between the national office, regional offices, and state agencies. That’s where my work comes in this summer!

To start, I will be combing through the annual SNAP-Ed plans and reports submitted by each state to better understand what is happening on the ground across the country.  Each state agency contracts with a number of sub-grantees, creating a network of organizations that implement the SNAP-Ed program in slightly different ways. For example, most of the federal money that Texas receives goes to regional food banks and Texas AgriLife Extension sites, which provide nutrition education classes to low-income individuals in their communities. In California, on the other hand, the majority of the funds are spent by the state Department of Public Health and local public health departments with a focus on nutrition-related social media campaigns as well as nutrition education classes.

However a state chooses to deliver the SNAP-Ed program, they have to submit an annual plan. All of those plans must be collected, approved, and archived by the federal office.  They currently exist as a pile of CDs on my desk, and call me a wonk, but I am thoroughly excited to explore them!