This summer, I had the enormous pleasure of interning at the Nutrition Policy Department of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Nut Pol, as we affectionately called our department, not only encourages people to eat more nutritious food but also works to transform the American food environment to promote healthy choices. Their projects include mandatory calorie-labelling on menus (coming in 2017!), removing soda from restaurant kids’ menus, and improving the nutritional quality of vending machine options.
Jessica Almy is the Deputy Director of Nutrition Policy and served as my supervisor during my stint at CSPI. She has led campaigns and initiatives to stop the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids, encourage retailers to not sell junk food in checkout aisles, and ban the use of synthetic dyes in food.
She is also delightfully active on Twitter and even threw shade at Selena Gomez for endorsing Coca-Cola.
You have a J.D. from NYU and began your legal career in environmental law. What inspired you to move into the field of nutrition?
JA: I have always had a personal interest in nutrition, which has spilled over into activism. In high school and college, I lobbied for vegetarian and vegan choices, and in law school, I led a campaign to get my school to switch to cage-free eggs. Working for CSPI lets me combine food activism with law and policy—it’s pretty great.
Is there a single project that you are or have been most passionate about?
JA: Just one? Our retail work is fascinating. It’s been great to learn why people buy the food they buy and how the retail environment is set up to get us to buy (and consume) more of particular foods. Our goal is to transform retail so that it’s easy for people to eat well. We’re starting by pushing for healthy checkout.
What are your biggest frustrations in nutrition policy work? I’m sure there are many (general unawareness, myths, consumer manipulation, big business push-back, etc).
JA: I’m sure my biggest frustration is common among advocates: change comes slowly. Policy work takes patience, which can be hard when the stakes are so high.
If you could only transmit one sentence of advice to all Americans, what would it be?
JA: Push back; don’t accept the status quo. (And to push back on your one-sentence rule, Eva, here’s an important corollary: don’t blame people who are suffering from our polluted food environment. Hold companies and the government accountable instead.)
How can consumers influence business or government policy? Are petitions really effective?
Vote—with your fork and with your vote. And yes, speak up. Petitions are effective. In the past year, people who joined CSPI’s petitions have convinced Mars to phase out dyes from M&Ms, Jack in the Box to remove soda from the kids’ menu, and the University of North Carolina to rename the cringe-worthy Krispy Kreme Challenge Children’s Specialty Clinic.
Have you always been interested in food?
Yes. I drew pictures of artichokes in kindergarten. That’s normal, right?
You once mentioned your vegan book club to me. To end on a fun note, could you briefly explain what it is?
CSPI has a healthy workplace policy, which means sweets in the office are a no-no. Thank goodness, because I have a sweet tooth! Once a month, I get together with friends in the DC Vegan Baking Swap. We each make a recipe from that month’s cookbook or blog and share what we’ve made.
Okay, that sounds awesome. Can you name your favorite dessert from this experience, whether baked by you or someone else in the club?
Jessica knows that preaching about nutrients isn't enough to improve public health. That's why she focuses on the food environment: getting companies to stop bombarding consumers with junk food ads, sales ploys, and products masquerading as "healthy." The goal of her work is to make eating well (not junk food) the easy, convenient option.