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Brains Behind the Report: Marlene Schwartz

In August, the Inside Track chatted with Marlene Schwartz, director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, shortly after she was named to the post. On the heels of the unveiling of the Fast Food FACTS 2013 report, we decided to reprint our Q&A with Marlene. 
Congratulations on being named director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity! How does it feel so far to be in this new role?

So far it feels great!  I have been part of the Rudd Center since it was started in 2005, so I feel like I know the organization really well.  The good news is that I know what I am getting into. On the other hand, the challenge will be to think outside the box, and push our team to try new and different things. 
What originally motivated you to work on food policy issues?

My interest in food policy was originally motivated by my clinical work at the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. When I worked with individuals who struggled with eating disorders, I felt like I had something to offer. When it came to obesity, however, I felt like all the work I did with my clients in my office was undone the minute they walked out the door. I decided I could either keep working with people one at a time to help them overcome the unhealthy food environment, or I could try to change the environment. That latter seemed like a more efficient solution.
Since you began working on food policy, what’s changed — both good and bad?
I feel like the biggest positive change has been nutrition in schools. Ten years ago, most high schools had vending machines with soda and other sugary drinks, and were filled with unhealthy competitive foods.  Today, we have state and federal regulations that have already had an impact, and in the next few years, will completely change the school food landscape. 

I feel like the most negative change is how certain segments of the food and beverage industry have increased their lobbying dollars to fight against any policy efforts. I’ve been surprised by how hard the industry has fought against any government effort to improve food marketing directed at children. 
What are your main goals as director?
My main goal as director is to keep the work of the Rudd Center relevant to the overall movement to reduce childhood obesity. This means we need to conduct research that will answer pertinent policy questions in a timely manner. I also want to ensure that everyone working in this area is sensitive to the problem of weight stigma and uses messages that promote health without increasing the bias against obese individuals.
One of the big projects you will take on is the partnership with the new Voices for Healthy Kids initiative, as the Yale Rudd Center will be overseeing efforts to reduce kids’ consumption of unhealthy beverages such as sugary drinks. What sort of projects do you expect to work on in that area? 

I am very optimistic that progress can be made. Public opinion is changing, and parents are becoming increasingly aware of how harmful sugary drinks are for their children.  I am heartened by the fact that sugary drinks will be eliminated from schools when the new competitive food regulations are implemented.  I think this is analogous to how schools were among the first places to become smoke-free.  Just as smoke-free laws have taken a while to spread across the country, policies to decrease consumption of unhealthy beverages will take time to gain momentum.  
How are you feeling overall about food policy? Do you think things are headed in the right direction?
Overall, I feel that things are headed in the right direction.  When I first started working in this field, the prevailing belief was that enough nutrition education could solve the problem of childhood obesity.  Now, I think most people would say that nutrition education is necessary, but not sufficient to change eating behavior in this environment.  I have been really impressed how policymakers, the First Lady, and even some segments of the food industry now talk about changing defaults, and making the healthy choice the easy choice. 
I know you are only a few days into the job, but what sort of legacy do you hope to have at the Yale Rudd Center?

I am not thinking much about my own legacy, but I care deeply about the legacy of the Rudd Center.  Our model is to find strong leaders for each of our initiatives and provide a setting where they can do their work and make a difference. My plan is continue that process, and remain open-minded about the specific topics we choose to address. Yale University is a remarkable place to be and we have dozens of first-rate researchers whose work is relevant to childhood obesity and weight stigma right here in New Haven.  I’d like to do more to connect with faculty and students throughout the campus, and leverage the talent at Yale to increase our impact on the world.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I would just like to thank all of my colleagues who have expressed so much support for me and the work of the Rudd Center. When Kelly Brownell and Leslie Rudd co-founded the center, I don’t think either of them thought about what would happen if Kelly were to leave Yale. But the fact that we are still here and going strong is a sign that their vision was larger than any individual person. I feel honored to have the opportunity to lead our team into the next chapter of the Rudd Center.