Alumni Spotlight: Karen Spangler ‘13

Karen Spangler

November 2021
Interviewer: Asha McElroy

Karen Spangler, MPP, MUP ‘13 is the Policy Director of the National Farm to School Network. Karen’s 7 years of UM coursework (undergrad and grad) and experience both in and outside the classroom have influenced her worldview and contributed to her passion for equitable and policy driven food systems change.

How did your studies at UM influence your career path? 

An undergraduate class I took with [SFSI affiliates] Dr. Ivette Perfecto and Dr. Catherine Badgley was vital to shaping how I understood agroecology, power relations, and how the expertise of farmers shapes environmental impact. Our class,[Food, Land, and Society] traveled to Chiapas, Mexico which was vital to shaping how I understood how the social power relations and the expertise of farmers shapes the actual environmental impact and agroecology. I learned about how much control small producers have over the methods they use and the impact the food system has on their survival. 

When I was in grad school at the UM (Ford School of Public Policy), there was an emphasis on developing a set of tools that you can apply to any kind of policy. I learned about both qualitative and quantitative analysis and I chose projects that I could see through a food systems lens.

In urban planning, I worked with [SFSI affiliate] Dr. Larissa Larsen and Dr. Joe Grengs. I participated in the work study program with Dr. Larsen to study food systems problems on the local level. 

The University of Michigan also helped me make a lot of connections with friends and mentors that I’ve been able to to lean on and learn from. I met my friend Jahi Chappell, who is an accomplished agroecologist and now the Director for the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network. Another friend and now colleague, Lindsay Smith, is in D.C. and works for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments on food systems issues. 

What sparked your interest in food systems and how did it lead you to your current position?

I worked at Growing Hope after college and then again after graduate school. At the time, the idea that [food] organizations could be more than a food bank was not popularly understood. [Working at Growing Hope] shaped a lot of how I think about this work and what made me interested in the policy aspect in the first place. Funding challenges and competing for the same portion of Federal or small Foundation grants led me to become passionate about trying to go up a level and change the current conditions. 

After my husband and I moved to Washington D.C., I started working at Food Policy Action which was a small nonprofit that has both a 501C3 and C4 status. C4 means that it is allowed to do more political speech in terms of connecting the dots for people about legislators’ votes and  implications on the food system. I was eventually promoted to the Policy Director at Food Policy Action. I have been at the National Farm to School Network since early March 2020.

What was it like to be the Policy Director at the National Farm to School Network at the beginning of the pandemic?

March 2020 was a time of rapid change because schools were shutting down and changing their meal programs. The food supply chain in general was starting to reveal issues. People were rushing to buy dried beans from the grocery store and no longer taking some aspects of our food system for granted. I had to quickly figure out and interpret the changes to the food system for our National Farm to School Network partners in all 50 states and in U.S. territories. I was gathering information from the partners about their needs and advocating on their behalf and then interpreting some of the new rules and legislation from the Federal Government for our partners. 

In your role as Policy Director are you able to see the fruits of your labor?  

When you work on policy change programs or other initiatives you don’t necessarily see the immediate impact of your work. I think it’s slower. Especially at the federal level, it’s a big ship that you’re trying to turn, but it has a huge impact when it does. One thing I’m really proud of is that we have been working with a congressional office on reintroducing a bill to help provide schools with more flexibility when purchasing fruits and vegetables. 

The National Farm to School Network has a Racial Equity Toolkit that has an assessment of policies that put more power in the hands of communities of color.The toolkit involves decision makers at local, state and national levels to identify the pitfalls in racial equity policies within various organizations. As an organization we were able to identify some things that we wanted changed in the bill and provided suggestions. The Congressional office is very amenable and the bill has not yet passed but the language is out there. The language is in an existing bill as an example and a template now and so that the language can be incorporated into future or Child Nutrition Reauthorization or a future Farm Bill. If it does, the impact will be huge. 

What advice do you have for current students that are interested in pursuing a career in food systems ?

I had a work study job at the Ford School when I was in graduate school in the development office. Although I don’t work in development,  I learned a lot about the development world that has been [helpful] in every nonprofit job that I’ve ever had.  Although my urban planning degree wasn’t directly food related, having the knowledge of how urban planning works has helped me understand food related issues at the local and state level.  

As a student, I learned to critique power relationships especially as relates to racial inequity in our food system. I think that understanding and being well versed in how to talk about racial inequity is crucial, and that’s something that I am still continuously learning today.