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Alumni Spotlight: Brian Lang, MGA '08

August 29, 2017

Brian Lang, MGA '08, is currently the Director of the Food Trust and the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works across the country to improve people’s access to healthy food and information to make healthy decisions. In this interview, Brian discusses his career and time at Fels. 

Please describe your organization and its mission:

The Food Trust is a Philadelphia-based not-for-profit organization that works across the country to improve people’s access to healthy food and information to make healthy decisions. We were founded out of Reading Terminal Market in 1992 after our founder learned that many neighborhoods in the City didn’t have grocery stores and believed that it was having an impact on people’s health. In those years, Philadelphia, along with much of the country, was beginning to see a notable increase in rates of diet-related diseases like Type-2 diabetes and obesity. Then and now, the problem disproportionately affects people living in low-income communities and communities of color. Much of our work has been developed as a response. We started in those years running farmers’ markets in low-income communities around the City and, as we grew, we conducted nutrition education at schools and community sites around Philadelphia, worked with the State of Pennsylvania and other partners to help get grocery stores built in neighborhoods like North Philly and Parkside, and worked with corner store operators to provide them with the resources they need to sell healthier foods. Because a lot of the challenges Philadelphia faces aren’t unique to this City, for the past ten years we’ve spent a lot of time working with partners in other parts of the country to develop policies and programs in their cities and states that can address the problems we face.

Please describe your position and the duties it entails: 

I oversee the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access, a multi-state effort to develop policies and programs that increase access to healthy food in low-income communities. A lot of our work involves advocating for policies like healthy food financing initiatives (HFFIs) that provide financial incentives for grocery stores to invest in low-income communities. I also oversee a project here called the Center for Healthy Food Access, a national collaborative effort to ensure that every child in the United States has access to nutritious, affordable food. The Center serves as a catalyst to share learning and test groundbreaking ideas, as well as secure the progress on a variety of food issues that has been made over the past ten years. I oversee a team of 10 people mostly based here in Philly who work on different aspects of those projects in more than a dozen states around the country. And I don’t just serve in a supervisory capacity, I also routinely travel to other places to advise advocates and policymakers on strategy and program design. In fact, one of the most engaging parts of the job is the opportunity to travel to other places and see how things play out in different settings.

How did you become interested in this work?

It took me a little while to find a career path when I was younger. I studied English Lit as an undergraduate and spent years thinking I would get a PhD and teach courses on modernist poetry or Victorian literature. But after I finished my undergraduate degree I didn’t want to just jump immediately into more school. I had done an internship at WHYY in public relations because I had a faculty adviser who wanted me to consider a few career choices, and that got me interested, generally speaking, in nonprofit work. I had this moment around that time where I discovered that it was really engaging to be managing projects at a mission-focused nonprofit organization, and after a short stint at WHYY, I made the jump over to The Food Trust, where I started out running a number of the organization’s farmers markets. While doing that, I started to understand a whole lot more about the role public policy at the federal, state, and local level played in our work; how local ordinances affected where we could locate farmers markets and what we could sell there, to how grants from USDA could provide us with resources to enhance our work. That interest in public policy, and a desire to use it to improve people’s lives, is what guided me to Fels.

How has Fels helped you in your career?

For me, studying at Fels was an opportunity to step back a bit from the day to day of my job where I do things like write proposals, manage budgets, give presentations, and advocate for policy; and think about things a little more conceptually. I studied what the government does well and where it struggles, the important characteristics for leadership in the nonprofit sector, and ways to be better and more persuasive public speaker. The professors were really helpful across a range of fronts and, by getting to know my classmates, I gained a deeper understanding of all of the different types of things people in our field do for their jobs. For example, I had certainly interacted with a lot of legislative aides or representatives from state agencies in my day to day, but now I was working on group projects with them and learning a little more about how they operate and think.

What was your favorite Fels course and why?

I’m torn. Policy Development was a great class that I still think about all of the time. I took it right before healthcare reform passed in 2010, and it was a great primer for the entire debate that happened that year. Also, given all of the policy work I’ve done over the years, it was tremendously helpful to think about and analyze what led to some policies and proposals getting on governments' “decision agenda.” To this day I think about those concepts all of the time. The other class that really sticks with me is Public Speaking. In a lot of the work we do, ideas are only as powerful as our ability to communicate them to people, and being able to do that well takes a lot of practice. And out there in the working world, there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities to practice your ability to communicate in a learning lab type of setting; usually you’re doing that type of thing in a real world environment. 

What advice do you have for current Fels students? 

Develop the ability to be curious about whatever you’re working on at any given moment, regardless of whether it was a project you sought out or a problem that you were given to solve. Few among us have as much control over our careers as we would like, and cultivating a healthy sense of curiosity can ensure that you bring your best thinking to whatever you have to do. Enjoy your time in graduate school, you’re surrounded by lots of thoughtful and intelligent people, and it’s one of your rare opportunities in life to be reflective about work.

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu