UM Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Reinhardt ’14

Interviewer: Asha McElroy

December 2021

Sarah Reinhardt MPH, RD’14 grew up in a family that spent time in the woods and valued the environment and social justice. She went to undergrad and graduate school and UM and now lives out her family’s values through her position at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she is a Senior Analyst in the Food Systems and Health, Food & Environment Program.  

How do you integrate your culture into issues that you’re passionate about?

Food is so intimate. It’s a really personal topic that has so much significance to people.  I think something that I bring to my work in nutrition is this idea that it’s okay to be human and food does have a cultural significance. We don’t always just eat based on calories or for micronutrients. Food is an integral part of celebrations, rituals, and a part of people’s enjoyment, which is important to me. I try to bring that approach to any conversation I have about what it means to eat well or eat healthfully. I’m very big on the fact that there are only healthy diets– not necessarily healthy foods. When there’s a new nutrition study or information is released on the latest fad diet, the media can run away with it and.it can be very easy to start to see foods as good or bad and demonize certain foods rather than trying to present an alternative perspective to food’s relationship to health. Culture has a huge impact on what we eat and how we eat. 

Were you involved with food systems activities on campus?

The University of Michigan was still developing their curriculum in sustainable food systems when I was in both undergrad and graduate school. At the time, there wasn’t as much available to me. I found experience outside the classroom most beneficial. One summer during undergrad I worked at Growing Hope, which is a nonprofit organization located in Ypsilanti, MI that helps build raised garden beds for community members to grow their own food. In Graduate School, I had a summer internship with Detroit Community Markets at Eastern Market in Detroit, where I designed surveys about the Double Up Food Bucks Program. The goal of the surveys was  to determine how the program worked for people, including accessibility to healthy food. I also provided technical assistance at the market for customers and market staff. 

In grad school I helped organize the Washtenaw County Local Food Summit which was a wonderful way to meet people in the community and explore outside the walls of academia while being able to engage in hands-on work. Organizing with the Local Food Summit introduced me to [SFSI affiliates] Dr. Lesli Hoey and Dr. Andy Jones. It was a really great way to meet people and be engaged in that world. 

What advice would you give students interested in working in food systems?

What I love and appreciate so much about food systems work is that food touches all of us every day at least three times a day, and I also love how it seems like there is more and more of it just happening everywhere. Not just at the federal or state level, but also the local food summit, local food policy councils, nonprofits. It’s like everybody suddenly has an interest in local food systems. 

I think the first step to getting involved is just finding out what’s out there and what’s happening around you. Talk to faculty and ask what they know about outside the classroom that you could get involved in. Most places have a local food policy council at this point, and so plugging into that and just trying to find out what’s out there. There is far more going on than when I was in grad school. It’s a great time to get your hands dirty metaphorically and literally. Jump into something that’s maybe a little bit outside your comfort zone or outside of what you typically do during the semester. 

I enjoy reading your blog posts for the Union of Concerned Scientists. How do you decide what to write about?

A lot of the work I do and a lot of the books that I write are driven by current policy opportunities, based on what’s happening in Congress, legislation in development or discussions. For example, during the two years leading up to the 2020 to 2025 dietary guidelines I wrote a lot about the dietary guidelines. Topics like ‘what is the latest evidence connecting healthy diets to health benefits and health care cost savings?’ or ‘What is the likelihood that the dietary guidelines advisory committee makes recommendations about sustainability?’ I wrote about those topics to keep the public informed about how they could plug in through the public comment process and know what to expect from that process. The same process occurred during the years leading up to the 2018 Farm Bill which is an important piece of legislation that includes a lot of nutrition and agricultural provisions. I read a lot about the Farm Bill and its policy priorities in the nutrition and agricultural spaces. 

Sometimes what I write about is influenced by what people are talking about or what people are interested in. There’s always a new study that gets picked up by the media and everybody has a moment where carbs are the worst or fats the worst. Sometimes I try to take those studies and demystify them and provide a clear explanation of what the science means and what context we need to understand it.