The Tisch Food Center is excited to welcome Dr. Sara Abiola as Executive Director. Learn more about her professional interests, passions, and visions for the future in this introductory interview.

Please tell us a little about your background and professional interests.

Growing up in a culturally diverse home in the Midwest and later in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I always knew that individual and group identity could shape attitudes, experiences, and access to opportunities. I studied psychology and international studies as an undergraduate at Yale College in large due to my interest in understanding the dynamics that can create- and resolve- identity or group-based conflict. After completing my law degree and PhD at Harvard University, I was even more keenly aware of the relationship between social factors, justice, and public health in particular. I worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Health Policy & Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Center for Community-Based Research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, and the Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. The common thread running through all of these experiences was the desire to identify mechanisms that could improve population health outcomes, primarily through access and equity-oriented policy interventions. Most recently, as faculty member in the Department of Health Policy & Management at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, I taught a range of courses to MPH students, MHA students, and executive MHA students from a variety of backgrounds. My research now focuses on the relationship between public policy and population health with an emphasis on food policy and noncommunicable diseases.

What do you see as some of the biggest issues in food policy and nutrition education right now?

Over the past few years it has become very apparent to most people that socioeconomic factors must be addressed at the individual, home, and community level to improve population health outcomes. Increasing consumption of nutritious food and decreasing consumption of highly processed products play a critical role in achieving this goal. I think it’s very important to examine the utility and process of integrating and harmonizing social services that shape access to nutritious, health-promoting food and other social determinants of health, including housing, education, employment, transportation, and healthcare.

We also know that systemic inequities within and outside of food systems can hinder a society’s ability to achieve widespread food security and, by extension, positive population health outcomes. I think it’s important to encourage all stakeholders in the food policy and nutrition education space to embrace the opportunity to develop a more well-defined agenda in relation to food systems equity through enhanced representation of minority communities, integration of racial demographics into surveys and assessments, and creation of and advocacy for policy proposals that incentivize investment in communities with limited access to nutritious food.

Finally, I think we must continue to define and redefine the role that the food and beverage industry plays in shaping dietary practices and patterns on a domestic and international level. For example, there are key moments where legislative text and even judicial opinions have signaled a break from an existing policy position or a change in understanding about the underlying, distal causes of poor nutrition and obesity-related illnesses.

What are you most excited about working at the Tisch Food Center?

I am most excited about the unique opportunity to combine food policy teaching and research with advocacy to achieve the results we would like to see in the “real world”. Graduate students, members of the Food Ed Hub coalition, and all the organizations we work with contribute to the process of developing and implementing health-promoting food policies in schools and in the greater community. Moreover, the mission of the Tisch Food Center reflects some of my own values and beliefs. As public health policy researcher and an attorney, I can attest to the long-term benefits of education and the importance of investing in individuals and their environment to promote good health and progress over the life course. I look forward to the opportunity to do so with a committed team of faculty, staff, students, and community leaders.