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By Lillian Thomas MPP’23

Lillian Thomas
Lillian Thomas MPP'23

Food can be a source of fuel, a source of pleasure and a complicated relationship. It can also be an uncertainty for some.

My journey with food activism began as an undergraduate student. While working with activist organizations on campus, I discovered that several students were forced to choose between food and rent. Hearing people's stories was stark. How could something vital to survival be so uncertain for those around me? This drive to provide all students with the most basic necessities began a months-long journey with my university and our food provider, Aramark, and ended with a six-day hunger strike. Eventually, the two institutions agreed to an ongoing program that provided and continues to provide 28,000 free meals annually to students suffering from food insecurity.

Upon beginning graduate school, I thought my food activism was mainly over. Then I started my internship with the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2022. Working in the superintendent's office as a policy research intern, I was introduced to so many struggles children in one of the largest school districts in the nation faced. While some included housing, learning loss, and teacher retention, food insecurity was one of the most significant issues. As part of my internship, I spent weeks examining the district's nutrition program. I met with nutrition staff and students and recommended alternative solutions that are currently being implemented within the district.

Recently, my food journey took me to Berlin. While studying at the Hertie School of Governance this fall through the MPP program, I experienced a wonderful course titled "The Politics of Food." This was a full-circle moment for me. After working in the food activism space and creating tangible improvements to the lives of students across different sectors, taking a course with brilliant students from around the world discussing inherent problems and solutions surrounding nutrition and food security not only cemented my passion for the subject matter but allowed me to see it as my purpose. I’m now using what I learned at Hertie in my master’s thesis at Sanford. Though food policy wasn’t the path I initially embarked on, it has been a profoundly fulfilling journey I plan to continue in my next chapter of life.

Lillian Thomas is a second-year Master of Public Policy candidate. Hailing from Mobile, Ala., she received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Spelman College. While at Spelman, she was awarded National Action Networks Youth Leader of the Year, recognized by #RealCollege for her activism around student hunger, and was a Forbes 30 under 30 Fellow.