The Leading Voices in Food
E214: Championing MyPlate – USDA’s Director of Food & Nutrition Service Caree Cotwright
Our guest today is Dr. Caree Cotwright, director of Nutrition Security and Health Equity at the Food and Nutrition Service at the US Department of Agriculture. Dr. Cotwright is leading a USDA-wide approach to advancing food and nutrition security in the United States. Part of her responsibility includes the charge from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to make MyPlate a household name. MyPlate is the official visual reminder of the US government to make healthy food choices from each of the five food groups. Now, this turns out to be a tall but important order. About a quarter of US adults have heard of MyPlate, according to a recent survey.
Dr. Caree Jackson Cotwright serves as the Director of Nutrition Security and Heath Equity for the Food and Nutrition Service at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In this role, Dr. Cotwright leads a whole-of-Department approach to advancing food and nutrition security. She also serves as one of two Departmental representatives on accelerating action on the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health goals to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, and reduce diet-related diseases and disparities and implementing the corresponding National Strategy. Her work includes building public awareness of USDA’s actions to advance food and nutrition security, as well as collaborating and building partnerships with key stakeholders to maximize our reach and impact. Dr. Cotwright is on leave as an Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences in the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences’ Department of Nutritional Sciences. Her research centers on promoting healthy eating among infants through age five-years-old with a particular focus on accelerating health equity among historically underserved populations via community-based participatory research and focusing on developing, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining best practices and policies in the early child education setting. She has developed a variety of innovative interventions, which use theater, media, and other arts-based approaches. She is the author of numerous peer-reviewed publications and secured over $1M in grants focused on obesity prevention and health equity from Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the USDA. From 2010-2013, she worked as an ORISE Research Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, where she was highly engaged in the early care education elements of the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative dedicated to helping kids and families lead healthier lives. Dr. Cotwright holds a PhD in Foods and Nutrition and Community Nutrition and MS in Foods and Nutrition both from the University of Georgia and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Howard University
You came to USDA while on leave from the University of Georgia (UGA) where, by the way, you were the first Black woman in the Department of Nutritional Sciences to earn tenure. Congratulations for this, and please know how much I appreciate the important role that you’ve played in our field. So, let’s start with discussing what drew you to food policy and what makes you excited about your role in public service at USDA?
I am really excited about this role because it’s just a privilege. When I think about the fact that USDA has the title or has a position for the director of Nutrition Security and Health Equity, I get excited about that. It’s been a privilege to work on advancing all of the things that have come about because of the White House Conference. I came to nutrition policy really in a kind of a roundabout way. I was working on my master’s at UGA and I was doing an internship at the Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI). At that time, I was wanting to write on the Nutrition Action Health letter, but they had someone who was mentoring in nutrition policy and that someone was Margo Wootan. She kind of took me under her wing and helped me to learn about what nutrition policy was.
After completing my master’s and my PhD, I did my postdoc, and then did a RISE fellowship at the CDC. I was working on disseminating policy around early care and education obesity prevention policies and just really to understand the keen role that policy plays in the advancement of nutrition and policies in general. That was really eye-opening for me. I knew that during my role at University of Georgia as a faculty member that I would focus on both policy and intervention. I’ve had such a wonderful experience of being able to use different creative approaches, but also using policy. Some of those approaches have earned me the opportunity to talk to a variety of communities in different ways, including having a TED Talk. It’s just been a joy to do this work.
You’ve had so many interesting experiences and I could see how you’d be passionate about food policy after spending time at CSPI, especially with Margo Wootan. There aren’t many people that know food policy like she does. But one thing I wanted to ask you about is one of the highly novel part of your work and your approach to nutrition has been to incorporate the creative arts, including storytelling. Tell us about this if you would.
Storytelling has always been near and dear to my heart. When people ask me about that question, I’ve been doing it since I was about five years old when I was asked to come and give the commencement speech for my nursery school. I wasn’t afraid, it was fun for me, and I just said, “Wow, this is really something that I can do.” I enjoyed connecting and engaging with others. As I think about my work, I know that telling stories and using creative approaches to meet people where they are helps us to promote a variety of topics. Of course, it’s kind of entertainment education, but using these approaches is a catalyst to get people interested in what we’re doing. We know we’re competing with so many things that pull people’s attention now.
Some of the things that I’ve done are I have a play about nutrition for young children, I have a hip hop song. I tell stories even in my speeches because I know that when I can connect, people will remember that story. And that’s so important. Through my work, I promoted the Child and Adult Care Food program. I worked on the SNAP-Ed program at University of Georgia. We’ve done creative things like having skits and have enough care to call Healthy Bear that the children relate to. Even in some of our work that I’ve been blessed to have and had the privilege to work with Robert Wood Johnson Healthy Research to have social media and to use all of these approaches, but to use it to promote health and use it to promote healthy messages and messages specifically about nutrition. That creativity and those approaches are things that I bring to my current position in thinking about how do we engage the public, especially as we continue forward with advancing nutrition security and health equity, as well as making MyPlate a household brand?
I love that creativity. I think back on memorable speeches I’ve heard or talks I’ve listened to and things, very often, it’s the stories that you remember. The fact that you’re recognizing that, appreciating that, and perfecting it, I think is really impressive. I’m glad to learn a little bit more about that. Let’s talk now about your federal service at the CDC. This was another experience that I know helped shape your interest and your passions and your desire to return to public service at USDA.
That’s a wonderful question. It was such a wonderful opportunity to come to CDC at a time we were on the cusp of really thinking about how do we develop and disseminate policy related to obesity prevention for our youngest children, age zero to five. I had just finished a postdoc in community-based participatory research at Morgan State University working with Head Start children. At the time when I got to CDC, we had former First Lady Michelle Obama working on Let’s Move! One of the key initiatives was Let’s Move! Child Care. We modeled the initiative and the work we were doing related to policy on the work of an outstanding researcher. Her name is Dr. Dianne Ward. Not only was she an outstanding researcher, she became a mentor, colleague, and friend of mine. I just have so much admiration for the work that Dianne Ward did and the trailblazing efforts that she did to advance policy in the early care and education setting related to obesity prevention, but also in equity.
So we were working on these things and my task was to go around to stakeholders all across the country and make sure that they understood what we were saying. So again, bringing in that community engagement and the training that I had, I said, “We can’t just put this on a website and say, ‘Hey everybody, you should go out and do this.’ We have to go in and teach people and train people and explain it.” Fortunately, my mentor there, Dr. Reynolds and Heidi Blanck, they agreed. I was able to go out and help to disseminate the policy, and again, it gave me such a strong and firm understanding of how to really relate.
I’ll tell you just a quick story. At the time, I didn’t have kids, Kelly, and we were talking about these obesity prevention policies and we said, “Okay, no screen time for children under two,” and those things. It wasn’t until I had kids and I thought, “Well, how do you do that?” Because it has to be realistic and you have to think about how these policies work on the ground. As I talk to childcare providers, as I talk to stakeholders, as I talk to people working at the state level across the country, we help gain an understanding for just how these policies will go into place and gain support for policy implementation because we can’t do the work without the people who are working on the ground level.
Two things I want to make note of that you just said. First is if it’s easy to to talk about how children should be fed and learn about food until you have them, and then all of a sudden, it gets a lot more complicated, I know. But the other thing I’m grateful that you did was to pay tribute to Dianne Ward. Many of our listeners may know she was a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and recently passed away. There are people all over the country in the world who were just broken hearted by this because she was such a dear friend and colleague to many of us, and just a completely inspired researcher who wanted to make a difference in the world and really did. It’s not surprising that she touched you and your professional career in such positive ways and that’s true of a lot of us. I’m really happy that we were able to talk about her for a moment. So thank you.
Thank you. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity.
Let’s talk more about your current position at USDA now. Can you tell us what your primary responsibilities are and what your vision is for your work ahead?
Yes. My primary responsibilities are to advance the work of food and nutrition security and health equity. I know that’s a part of my title, but we really are working to make sure that people are able to get access to the food they need. Our definition is that nutrition security means that everyone has equitable access and consistent access to healthy, safe, and affordable food that is optimal for their wellbeing. We do this at USDA through four pillars. We think about having meaningful support for nutrition and nutrition education, making sure that people have access to that healthy, safe, and affordable food, making sure that we work through collaborative action through partnerships, and then making sure that we prioritize equity every step of the way.
When you think about USDA and the programs that FNS has and the programs that we are working on in our mission area, we have lots of opportunities to advance nutrition security because our work is just so closely related. I work very closely with our programs and I work a lot with our stakeholders, both internally and externally, to make sure that people are aware of the work that we’re doing. But not only that, that we are leveraging things like the historic White House Conference, making sure that we have lots of commitments from people all over. We’ve had over $8 billion of commitments. But making sure that with our stakeholders and our partners, that we lean into new creative approaches that will help us to reach our goals. We have some really big goals to end hunger, to improve nutrition, physical activity, and to reduce diet-related diseases and disparities. We are holding ourselves accountable and making sure that we’re getting the word out and making sure that we’re partnering in very meaningful ways.
A part of my larger vision is a part of the secretary’s vision, which is to make MyPlate a household brand. We think about what does that mean? We want to make sure, you said early on that about 25% of Americans are aware of this tool, but we want to make sure that not only are they aware, but they use the wonderful resources that are attached to MyPlate because it is our federal symbol for healthy eating.
It’s heartening to hear about your vision and to understand the kind of progress that’s being made to advance food and nutrition security, and also to specifically leverage some of the commitments that were made at the White House Conference. In addition to what the federal government can do, are there things that individuals can do like our listeners, for example, or the ways they can help?
Yes, and I’m so glad you brought up your listeners because that’s so important. So every voice matters. And so all of our actions add up collectively. I’ve heard up from some wonderful, wonderful people in West Virginia and Oklahoma, just all across the country. When I go out and speak and I tell people, “You have to help me with this mission of making MyPlate of household brand.” They sent me back things that they’re doing. Creative things like setting up kids farmers’ markets, popup markets in places like hardware stores that don’t traditionally do that. But they will set it up and let a farmer come in and set up a popup shop, and then they provide the tokens through some of our wonderful programs like SNAP-Ed and FNA. When we think about these creative solutions where there are already existing things, but we’re solving a problem, we’re solving that access problem. Just thinking about that and making sure that we are all collectively working together, we want to hear from you. We want to hear from you. I always give out my email. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to hear from your ideas. We also have our pillar pages on our website. If you just look at nutrition security at USDA, we have our pillar pages so you can learn more. But we also have a very short video where we’re talking about the work that we’re doing and highlighting that work, and a blog that is attached to that. So again, if you’re wanting to promote efforts that we’re doing, that’s a very quick synopsis and a short way to get it out there to people to spread the word and increase awareness about all of the wonderful things that we’re doing to advance food and nutrition security.
I never thought of my hardware store as a place to learn about nutrition, but why the heck not? Let’s talk about MyPlate a little bit more. What’s your role and how are you going to go about trying to make MyPlate a household name?
It’s a very multi-pronged approach. My role is to bring those creative approaches. One of the things I love about this position is that it’s a culmination of so many of the things that I’ve already been doing. Using my creativity, thinking about the equity focus, and working with our Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. They’re a wonderful team. They’ve already been doing wonderful things on MyPlate but helping to amplify that work and helping to get it out there so we make it a household brand. We have a multi-pronged approach where we’ll be using social media. I told you I was able to use that in my research. Not only that but doing things where we’re celebrating the great work that people are doing around MyPlate. Like for example, I know in Oklahoma, they had a wonderful day at the capitol and the lieutenant governor was working with students to put food in the right MyPlate categories and making sure that people are aware of them. There are artists making songs about MyPlate. And so, making sure that we are making the public aware of what we’re doing. With this multi-pronged approach, we’ll be doing listening sessions. We’re hearing from people about what can we do better? What do you really like? Are here things that we can change? Really hearing from the community on that level. Then, also thinking about industry and how can industry partner to promote MyPlate and promote those food categories so that people have an understanding of MyPlate and the branding of the icon. Making sure that people recognize MyPlate and the icon and are knowledgeable about the resources that we have. I’m really excited about doing partnerships because this is a one USDA approach. We’re going across all levels to make sure that we get the word out about MyPlate. And we do have a MyPlate national strategic partnership with partner organizations all over the country that are already helping us to do this work. We want to attract new partners, to have new partners to come in, and lean in to help us to amplify MyPlate and all the wonderful resources for the public.
I’m assuming it’s pretty easy to find out about MyPlate online, is that right?
It is. It’s myplate.gov. It is very simple. All of our materials are branded with that, but it’s very simple. You can remember MyPlate, you can remember our website. So it’s myplate.gov. You can go directly there and find all of our wonderful resources, and we’ll be having more, as I said, on social media. I don’t want to forget this point too as well, Kelly. There are cultural adaptations. When I’m out in the field, people ask me about, what about for my culture? What about for the things that I eat? How is MyPlate relevant to that? What I love about MyPlate is that it’s so adaptable. During our listening sessions and the work that CNPP is doing, we are working to address that as well. Again, meeting people where they are, having them understand that your cultural foods are healthy foods too, and how do we use MyPlate to guide our healthy choices when we’re making our meal choices. Again, you look at the plate, half the plate is fruits and vegetables and that can be from a variety of sources and a variety of cultures and preparations and lots of different foods. And so we want to make sure that people are understanding that and that we get the word out there.