10
Jan
2017
ALEXIS SANGALANG

NUTRITION PROGRAM SPECIALIST, NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

image1-2

Does the path to a career in food sometimes seem like a total mystery? We’re inspired by Alexis’ story because she does such a clear and thorough job of mapping out her education and work experience. In the end, it’s not about winding up in exactly the place you had imagined, complete with rainbows and unicorns – it’s about taking it step by step, and balancing the passionate voices inside with the opportunities made available on the outside.

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

I knew I wanted to work in food when I saw the effects of simply eating healthier, real foods and improving my well-being by reading about food and nutrition. Throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, I had a very unhealthy relationship with food which caused me to become hyper-aware of every single calorie intake and every single calorie expended. It was truly exhausting mentally, physically, and spiritually. By college, I promised myself that I would never treat myself so cruelly again. To do this, I became educated about food, health, and wellness which allowed me to heal and empower myself from within. I became a vegetarian, experimented with cooking, and constantly read nutrition books and blogs. It was the thing that got me excited and to this day, I still feel that. I realized that I wanted to provide this service to others – to educate and to empower. 

How did you get your current good food job?

A recruiter reached out to me about this position, actually, after finding my resume on LinkedIn. I scheduled my interview on a Monday with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Services. I interviewed on a Thursday and by the following Monday I received an offer. It was a super quick turnaround. Life happens like that sometimes. Also, my amazing network of folks that I’ve worked with in the public health/food realm helped me with advice and by being references.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

I received my bachelors in Nutrition and Food Science from Montclair State University, where I also served on the board of my student-led nutrition organization for three years. Throughout college I interned for several non-profits, however the one internship that really changed things for me was as the urban farm intern for City Green, a non-profit in Clifton, New Jersey whose mission is to create urban farms and gardens in northern New Jersey. This was my first experience in sustainable agriculture. I got my hands dirty by harvesting produce, prepared the farm for winter, and sold the produce at farmer’s markets in the surrounding areas of most need. It was something I’ve never experienced before. I loved the moments of stillness in the cold, autumn mornings, working and moving constantly outside, and feeling the earth with my hands. After that, I had a few more stints in farming through WWOOF-ing, other internships and short-term jobs.

Studying nutrition, I wanted a way to combine those two interests: urban agriculture and nutrition – something that sounds like an obvious pair, but, at the time, I had NO idea how to go about it. My college degree was more focused on preparing students for dietetic internships and working in hospitals as dietitians, which I had no desire to do anymore. Being an avid reader of GFJ, I came across one interview on the Gastronomes blog that really caught my eye: Genna Cherichello, who was serving with FoodCorps Maine at the time. Her answer as to how she became interested in working with food was incredibly captivating. She also wrote about the self-doubt she had in herself and her confusion as to how she could relate farming to her career, after having studied something unrelated to food. The type of work she was doing with FoodCorps definitely sounded like something that I could do to combine both interests, so I researched FoodCorps extensively, applied, and was accepted as one of the first service members in New Jersey. I was completely ecstatic. Things were piecing together for me. A few months later, during one of the Northeast regional orientations, I had the chance to sit across from Genna Cherichello during a family-style dinner and thanked her personally for sharing her experiences with FoodCorps on GFJ.

My two years with FoodCorps in Camden, NJ with NJ Partnership for Healthy Kids were absolutely amazing, and allowed me to work alongside passionate individuals in the field. I educated students about nutrition through garden education, built school gardens, and worked with the school communities to implement gardening into their lessons. Following FoodCorps, I worked as Youth Nutrition Education Coordinator with The Food Trust, a non-profit in Philadelphia working to improve food access through a combination of nutrition education and greater availability of affordable healthy food. While I enjoyed my time as an educator, I realized that I wanted a new challenge career-wise, which is how I got to my current good food job!

As Nutrition Program Specialist with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Division of Food and Nutrition, I work with the Child and Adult Care Food Program. I provide technical assistance in development and implementation of administrative and instructional policies for child nutrition programs state-wide. Working with a government agency is completely new to me, and honestly, I never really considered working with one. However, learning about the process of how these nutrition feeding programs work and the overall administration is incredibly fascinating and is providing me with the challenge that I sought after. Also, knowing that I am providing support to sponsors that feed thousands of meals to children is wonderful.

My past good food job experiences taught me about patience and the value of fostering healthy, community partnerships. I realize that surrounding yourself with passionate individuals is important. Their energy is contagious. Though, if you find yourself not in that type of space, you need to be that one passionate individual. You’re bound to inspire someone along the way.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream? 

My greatest obstacle was self-doubt. Not seeing tangible results in my work would be frustrating, and like most folks in the non-profit sector, it made me question if what I was doing was worth the effort. Having a hard work ethic and realizing that self-doubts happen helped me persevere. It’s important to take that much-needed step back sometimes to see the bigger picture.

I would be lying if I said that I was completely sure of what I want to do as a career for the rest of my life.  But now, at least, I know my passions and interests, and that will help guide me to a clearer path.

Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate? 

Get to know the people you work with, whether they are your fellow co-workers, your partners, or the people you’re serving. Make more than just small talk – ask them about their lives. Appreciate them, and be sure to tell them that. (Thanks, Val.)

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

I think that there should be more support for restaurants with the model of “pay what you can”. EAT Café, a special restaurant in Philadelphia, adopts this concepts. The idea is to not be confused with a soup kitchen, nor a wraparound service, but to set a stage for all people to be able to eat a decent meal.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

Potlucks, flights, and endless opportunities to travel to new places to explore backpack and hike outside. Those and tickets to music shows.