"Keep Your Eye On What You’re Driving Toward"

By Mary Rochelle, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

Students were eager and ready to dive in on the first morning of the ASU Food Policy Certificate Capstone Immersive in DC. Fortunately, the lineup of speakers that morning was an engaging and impressive bunch, all ready to share diverse perspectives to paint a picture of their current and past work in food and agriculture. 

The third panel of the day featured Kumar Chandran and Sara Bleich, Political Staff in the Office of the Secretary at USDA. Their presentations and answers to student questions covered topics ranging from specific policies to what it was like to be a part of a presidential administration transition team to ways that their own career trajectories have informed their current roles.

Career Trajectories 

At the outset of the panel, both Chandran and Bleich shared their different paths for arriving as senior political staff in the USDA’s Office of the Secretary. 

Chandran initially worked in advocacy and nutrition policy analysis in California and eventually moved to work on hunger policy on the national level on behalf of nonprofit Share our Strength. Next, he worked within the USDA’s Food Nutrition Services branch in the last few years of the Obama administration. It was at this time when Chandran said he really “learned how the USDA works from the inside. I learned so much in these few years about how policy is made and regulations are built for programs.” His next move was to become the Policy Director at FoodCorps, a national nonprofit that works to connect kids to healthy food in schools. In his time there, he used what he had learned at the USDA to be a better advocate. He said, “It was helpful to have on-the-ground programming [through FoodCorps] to show the impact of the policy in [lawmakers’] districts.” From there, Chandran was asked to join the Biden Administration transition team after the 2020 elections. Once that role concluded, Chandran was hired for his current role of working within the USDA. 

Bleich says that she has been an academic most of her life, and indeed, most recently was a professor of public health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Prior to her current role as a senior advisor for COVID-19 to the USDA Secretary, Bleich had spent the majority of her career working in public health policy academia, with the exception of her foray into work in the public sector under the Obama administration. She says that what drew her to that role initially was that she “wanted to work in government to see how it's done, how the ‘sausage is made.’” When she got started in this new field, she says that she was “totally blown away by the pace, and the caliber of people who have chosen to serve, despite their ability to make lots of money elsewhere.” She said that another thing that impressed and excited her was how small changes could make a really large impact.

The Start of a New Administration 

Chandran and Bleich both experienced working at the USDA under the Obama administration, but started their positions several years after the administration had already begun. Their new positions are beginning right at the beginning of the new Presidential administration, and both Chandran and Bleich have noticed the difference of starting at the beginning of an administration, compared to coming into an administration that is already a few years established. 

Chandran said that early on after the inauguration, there were some executive orders on nutrition and other high priority tasks that needed to be done right away. There was a timely need to address the current situation that the country was in, specifically focusing on food access issues for those in highest need. By August, Chandran felt that they were beginning to move past that initial phase, “now that the Rescue Plan has passed and is starting to be implemented, we can pick our head’s up and look forward,” he said. “We worked early on to be responsive, now we can think about how, as the President says, we can ‘build back better.’” 

Bleich shared that this stage of work in government is fast-paced and changes very rapidly. “In academic life, 80 percent of it is predictable, but in this type of work, only 20 percent is predictable,” she said. She said that this swift-moving environment requires clear written and oral communications skill. She emphasized that because decisions sometimes need to be made very quickly, being able to distill key points into memos is a valuable skill in her new workplace. 

Parting Words 

Both Chandran and Bleich were willing to address students' specific questions during the panel and they both generously offered career advice to the Food Policy Certificate students. Some parting last words of advice from Bleich were to “keep your eye on what you’re driving toward.” Certainly, these words are reflected in both her and Chandran’s journeys – that across many different industries, organizations, and U.S. states, they have both remained dedicated to their missions of furthering impactful food and nutrition policy.