Interview with Marlene Schwartz, PhD

Published: April 12, 2023

Marlene Headshot

We are excited to welcome Dr. Marlene Schwartz as the 2023 Michael & Susan Dell Center Lectureship in Child Health Award Recipient on April 27, 2023. Dr. Schwartz’s research addresses how nutrition and wellness policies implemented in schools, food banks, and local communities can improve food security, nutrition quality, and health outcomes.

In her keynote, What’s for Lunch? The Past, Present, and Future of School Nutrition, Dr. Schwartz will address recent and current debates surrounding school food and highlight the importance of public health nutrition research to guide policymakers. Ahead of her guest speakership, Dr. Schwartz took the time to share some of her past and present experiences as a public health professional.  Register to attend her virtual keynote presentation here.

How did your interest in public health begin? Have you always been interested in studying nutrition, food access, and school wellness policy?

I began my career as a clinical psychologist treating obesity and eating disorders. I became interested in studying school meals while I was treating a number of children with obesity. I felt like I was asking them to fight an uphill battle against a toxic food environment and decided that it would be more efficient to try to change the environment than to treat individual families one at a time. 

What types of policies and programs would you like to see implemented to help children and families access healthy foods? How would you encourage a holistic, whole-community approach to nutrition and wellness?

I prefer to work within big systems – like schools and the charitable food system. There is clear evidence that the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program help children access healthy foods, which in turn improves their diet quality. By improving nutrition in food banks and food pantries, you can reach the whole family with healthy foods. Interestingly, during the early days of Covid you saw more community approaches, such as sharing information about food pantries while parents were picking up school meals for their children. Finding more ways to connect these two systems would be one way to encourage a holistic, whole-community approach.

There exists a stigma associated with obesity and food insecurity. How would you encourage a change in perspective about obesity and food insecurity?

I think that the best way to tackle the stigma is to show that this is not about “personal responsibility.” Clearly, there are systemic problems that are at the root of both the rise in obesity and food insecurity. For example, it is important to acknowledge how food marketing, food access, food pricing, and the economy play a causal role in these societal challenges. 

Do you have a favorite research project or a project that has had a profound impact on you?

My favorite research project was the study we did that showed that plate waste did not increase when the nutrition standards for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act were put into place. There had been so much speculation and negative press – including attacks on Michelle Obama personally. I was excited when we found that the proportion of plate waste did not change – which was consistent with other research that came out around the same time. It was a great example of why you collect and measure data. That study was entered into the Congressional Record by the Secretary of Agriculture and was covered in many newspapers. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring public health professionals who are interested in food access, nutrition, and policy?

I think the great thing about this field is that we need many types of experts – people with degrees in nutrition, economics, policy, psychology, law, and more.  My advice is to study the field that you are most excited by and then see how your expertise can fit into the larger puzzle that we are all trying to solve.

Dr. Schwartz is the Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health at the University of Connecticut. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University in 1996. Prior to joining the Rudd Center, Dr. Schwartz served as Co-Director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders from 1996 to 2006.

Dr. Schwartz has received several research grants including from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Institutes of Health to study federal food programs, school wellness policies, the effect of food marketing on children, and strategies to address food insecurity and diet quality.