Making Communities Healthier from Afar
After studying food insecurity as an undergrad and working for the summer lunch program in New York City through AmeriCorps Vista, Jacqueline Leon, N21, knew she wanted to go into public health.
“A healthy life is not as simple as saying, I’m going to eat what I want. There are a lot of moving parts, which are all interrelated,” said Leon, who was this year’s Virginia and Dr. Elie J. Baghdady Humanitarian Scholar. “Whether people have access to healthy food, whether they have education about healthy food, whether they can pay for it—all those things have an impact on what they eat.”
Later, working for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Leon got hooked on doing work with real impact. “It’s easy to go into a job every day and lose sight of why you’re there, what you’re doing, and what the point is,” she said. “But for me with WIC, every day I felt that even in some small way, I was making a difference.”
But earlier this year, as Leon looked for summer internships in nutrition and public health, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. All the opportunities she had been considering were canceled.
Luckily, a friend soon told her that a virtual internship was open at the Boston nonprofit Community Servings, which offers medically tailored meals to individuals with special nutrition needs. The organization is part of the Food as Medicine Massachusetts Coalition, which promotes the use of whole foods as a health care intervention.
Community Servings was looking for an intern with a background in maternal and infant health—and Leon’s time with WIC made her both qualified and interested in this area. “It’s really the beginning of everything,” she said. “Starting from the time someone is pregnant or the time someone is born is really an ideal time to make a difference in their long-term health.”
Leon’s internship qualified her to receive support from the Virginia and Dr. Elie J. Baghdady Fund for Maternal and Child Nutrition. Over the past ten years, one student internship at the master’s level each year has been supported by the Baghdady Funds, focused on helping malnourished children and mothers in many places around the world. As a virtual intern for Community Servings and in partnership with the Massachusetts coalition, Leon did research on the role of food as medicine in the nonprofit’s work, and on how the approach has been used in pregnancies—particularly high-risk ones—in the state.
At first, Leon missed being in an office and talking to people. But she was able to participate in online lunch hours, and came to appreciate not having to commute. Her supervisors were accessible online whenever she needed, and the solitary nature of her work made it well-suited to do remotely.
This kind of online experience is valuable to students during this time, according to Matt Hast, assistant dean of student affairs at the Friedman School. “Virtual internships are helping students to pivot their skills and market themselves in new ways that appeal to employers,” Hast said.
Students have been able to secure internships with nonprofit organizations and state agencies throughout New England, Hast said, and Friedman School faculty also worked with a handful of students to create internship opportunities as part of their research. “Depending how long this new age of physical distancing lasts, students will be ready after graduation to join an everchanging workforce,” Hast said.
Leon said her internship allowed her to develop important skills. “The virtual aspect allowed me to focus on just this one project, and to grow as someone who can work independently,” Leon said. “With research and writing, the work is mostly on you–you just have to rise to the occasion.”
And she did, creating a report that became the basis for a fact sheet for community-based organizations, policymakers, and health care organizations. It was a rewarding process that opened her eyes to the amount of work left to do with maternal and child nutrition, she said.
As for the fact sheet itself, Leon hopes it helps change the health care structure in Massachusetts, and creates more access to food as medicine interventions and medically tailored meals. “This has the potential to have an impact on the way food as medicine is looked at in relation to all people, but to pregnant women in particular,” she said.
Leon’s internship was extended through the end of last month, and she is planning to continue this kind of work after she graduates. None of it would have been possible without support from the Virginia and Dr. Elie J. Baghdady Fund for Maternal and Child Nutrition, she said.
“To have the support to engage in the scholarship I wanted to be doing, and not have to do three other jobs this summer—I can’t talk enough about how important and helpful that was,” Leon said. “I think graduate work should be paid, but I also understand that nonprofit and government work often aren’t, so this was an invaluable gift.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.