Making Change Happen from the Top

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Callie Troutman, a bright and smiling young lady involved in changing the landscape of healthcare as we know it. We met at a monthly “Women in Healthcare” potluck that our mutual friends have started in the Brooklyn community. I was incredibly impressed at the level of dedication and passion that Callie has for her career path and wanted to share an interview with her on my website. Without further ado, here is Callie discussing politics, blogging, health, cooking and more!

1. I understand that you work in healthcare policy making. Sounds like you can make a real change at that level! Tell us a little bit about your official job title and description.

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Absolutely, at least that is the goal! People are often uninterested in politics either because they are disillusioned with our government; because they think it is boring; they think they couldn’t make a difference; or any number of reasons. Working in policy, at least where I am, is about adjusting your perspective so that you see each small task you do as a way of moving closer to a larger goal; then visualizing that goal pushing an even larger agenda item forward.

I am the “Policy Scholar” at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I also run external communications. While my boss does do a bit of active policy writing in the form of marker bills etc., most of our work is with advocacy for our center’s priorities. We work at the intersection of sustainable food systems and nutrition education, with a goal of making healthy food accessible, affordable and understandable to all. My job is to support these advocacy efforts and make sure we are communicating effectively with policymakers, voters/community members and other advocates.

2. What was your background before and how did you get into this role?

As most freshman-year, pre-medical students, I fought stubbornly to avoid becoming part of the statistic: over [insert high number]% of students who start out college pre-med don’t finish that way. I loved anatomy, physiology, genetics, Bayesian statistics and “clinical decision-making,” but where I failed was in the “real world” setting. Over the course of my last year of college, I shadowed physicians in nine different specialties, and I passed out a number of times…

After a small panic attack my senior year when it finally occurred to me that I would not make a great doctor, I applied to George Washington University for a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) program. For my thesis, I studied produce availability, price and quality in low-income Wards of Washington D.C. This led me into food/nutrition marketing and communications, and eventually brought me to where I am today—pursuing my Master’s of Science in Nutrition and Education and my registered dietitian (RD) certification at Teachers College.

3. What does a typical day look like at your job? What are you currently working on?

Every day is completely different. One of the great aspects, and difficult aspects, of working in policy is that you are constantly responding to government actions and current events. You could be working on a marker bill for months and in one minute learn that it is no longer relevant for one reason or another. We have to be nimble and be willing to pivot at the drop of a hat.

In the next year or two, Congress will seek to “edit” the farm bill. I love that fellow food/nutrition advocates call this bill the “food bill” and tell people that it only affects you if you eat. This joke challenges the misconception that the farm bill is only relevant for those involved in the farming industry. In fact, this bill includes such provisions as SNAP and SNAP-Education (commonly referred to as food stamps); it directly affects how much we pay for fruits and vegetables; it is the current reason why junk food costs less than nutrient-rich plant foods; and so on. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has a great website dedicated to the farm bill. As you can imagine, the farm bill is extremely important to us at the moment. We will be on the Hill in late July to speak with our NYC and NYS Members of Congress about nutrition education in the farm bill.

4. Does your job give you satisfaction and do you see real changes being made? What kind of policy changes do you hope to achieve in your role?

Satisfaction- YES! As I mentioned above, any policy work requires expectation management; change isn’t going to happen overnight. Also, change is going to look different at the city, state and federal levels of government. For the farm bill, we are pretty laser-focused on at least maintaining federal funding* for SNAP-Education and other nutrition education programs/grants.

*Just because you are able to get something into the farm bill doesn’t mean it will be funded. Mandatory programs will always receive funding, but discretionary programs will be subject to the budget and appropriations committees in both houses of Congress.

5. What are the challenges to making these changes?

There are always going to be challenges, but the current administration makes achieving even our smallest goals a steep, steep climb. Every political party, Member of Congress, constituent, federal judge, etc., has their own political priorities. What we have seen in the last decade or so is an inability to find common ground amidst these competing priorities. I am afraid this latest presidential campaign only served to further polarize our country, as we all saw. I know these are general challenges, but honestly they are what we think about most frequently.

6. I know you are working on advancing your degree. What are you currently studying at Columbia? What are your goals after you graduate?

I am studying nutrition; specifically I am getting my MS in nutrition education. I also plan to apply to a dietetics program following my MS, which will earn me my registered dietitian certification. I have many, many plans for my degree, and what I love about dietetics is that you can kind of create your own profession. I plan to combine communications (corporate, media, writing), culinary, clinical and advocacy in some form yet to be determined.

7. What is the premise of your blog? What do you want people to learn from it?

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My (now) husband and I started a blog back in 2014. We were dating long distance and it was our little project to keep things interesting. Josh quickly lost interest, but it turned into a creative outlet for me. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to commit that I would like, and I go through months-long phases where I don’t post, but I still love it! I am in the process of switching over from “Our Culinary Thing” to “Callie Anne Troutman Real Nutrition.” I will eventually use this site to launch products and counseling once I dig myself out of the student hole.

Food touches every aspect of our lives. I want to use my blog to share the positive ways we can use food to improve our health and our community!

8. In your opinion, what’s the number one thing people can do today to become more healthy?

I think preventive medicine and lifestyle changes are difficult to sell, because a lot of times you don’t FEEL any different. One of the most important things we can do is shift our mindset. We may not solve every bodily problem in a week with positive health practices, but we CAN practice taking care of our bodies, and over time these small acts add up. Don’t try to change every negative habit all at once or you will burn out!

Also, in the spirit of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we need to make sure we are satisfying our body’s basic needs first before we can think about next-level actualization. It is going to be difficult for us to choose life-giving foods if we are thirsty; if we don’t feel safe; if we are exhausted; if we don’t have love in our lives; or if we don’t have shelter. This may seem a little wonky, but it is true. We will always, unconsciously center our priorities around the lowest-level unmet need.

In my opinion, this is where policy comes in! The government’s role is to meet the lowest-level needs, or help people meet those by providing jobs/job training. At that point, “personal responsibility” can take over towards improving lifestyles and habits. We cannot tell people to eat healthy food if they don’t have water or the money to buy the food. It isn’t a perfect model, but I try to think about it that way!

9. Favorite restaurant in NY?

This question is nearly impossible to answer, but one that sticks out to me is Miriam in Park Slope. The restaurant is two blocks from my old apartment, so my husband and I would go there frequently for ½ price appetizers.

10. Favorite brunch dish?

Hands down, Shakshuka with crusty sourdough bread. I had it for the first time at one of my husband’s and my favorite restaurants in Charleston, SC named Butcher and Bee.

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11. Favorite pastime/hobby?

I love to cook! If I had a little more counter space and someone to follow me around cleaning up after me I would probably do it all the time.

12. Your favorite book you read in the past 3 months?

Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, and I am dying to read Animal, Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver because I have heard amazing things.

13. Who’s your idol or role model?

This is a great question, and one that I am having a hard time answering.

I would say I look up to individuals who are able to admit that they don’t have everything together; and individuals who are graceful without having to undermine the work of others.

Does that answer your question? I see a lot of these qualities in the people I try to surround myself with.

14. If your life was a TV show, what would it be?

My husband and I are working our way through West Wing right now, and I absolutely LOVE it. I would definitely not go so far as to say that my life is like a day in the White House, but I do see a lot of ways in which their work directly affects my job!

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15. Anything else you’d like to share?

I tried to give a brief overview of policy without going too-far in depth. If anyone would like to learn more or just have a discussion about what is going on in nutrition politics, I am MORE than happy to chat. Likewise, if you just want to talk about nutrition ☺ cat2179@tc.columbia.com or check out my blog: www.ourculinarything.com.