USDA: An experience that will push your boundaries

By: Rachell Burgos

Moira and me on our first day at the USDA.

My time at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Nutrition Services (FNS) brought many emotions. It started with filling out various documents and getting our fingerprints taken at the USDA in downtown DC. Who knew rotating at the USDA would require so much preparation? However, time flew by and soon we were ‘’working’’ for the federal government. I found that exciting. 

Our program hosted a joint class day in which my preceptor would speak. Before she walked on stage, I introduced her to the crowd and later was able to speak with her. While starting a new rotation always makes me a little nervous, meeting my preceptor the day before really helped calm my nerves. Starting somewhere new, with people you don’t know and in a new environment can be challenging at first. What if I’m not a good enough intern? What if I can’t deliver? 

For the next seven weeks, time management would become one of the skills I would most work on. I quickly learned about the importance of meal prepping and setting good weekly habits. This was crucial since it would dictate how the remainder of the week would play out. Moira, my partner, and I would wake up at around 5:15am to make our 8:00am clock in. We’d then clock out at 5:30pm and make it home at around 7:15pm. 

My everyday work area for seven weeks.

As I adjusted to my new work environment, I focused on familiarizing myself with FNS programs such as Food Distribution Program on Indian Reserves (FDPIR), Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), USDA Foods in Schools, among others. These would be the programs I would be working with for the majority of the following weeks. My first assignment involved transferring 160 nutrition sheets from an old template to a new and updated template. These are used in the USDA Foods in School program for ordering and yielding in school kitchens, therefore I had to examine the information for accuracy and relevancy. Other projects I worked on included making an FDPIR themed bingo for educators to teach individuals about the variety of foods offered in the program. This was fun; it allowed me to make something creative that can be used to educate FDPIR participants. This opportunity also allowed me to learn about all the foods available in the program. 

One of the three FDPIR Nutrition Bingo cards I created along with it’s key.



Throughout this rotation, I was given the opportunity to host a journal club to discuss the article “Gender Disparities in the Food Insecurity-Overweight and Food Insecurity-Obesity paradox among Low Income Older Adults.’’ The results stated that food insecurity coexists with obesity in low-income older women, but not for older men. While trying to master this article, I brainstormed five questions I wanted the team to discuss. A couple of the questions that were discussed included: 

  • How will the results of this study affect the way you approach decisions that need to be made regarding the CSFP and FDPIR food packages? 
  • The researchers concluded that there is a complex association between food insecurity and overweight and obesity. Based on your experience, what other variables may contribute to this paradox?. 

These questions provoked a lot of feedback and conversation which provided different points of view. Due to the journal club’s success, the dietitians were inspired to continue the tradition with each member of the team hosting a meeting monthly. 

Lastly, I will be working on a project about the School Nutrition Association (SNA) in which I will create a globally inspired menu featuring USDA Foods in Schools. Through this project, I will be incorporating Asian and Latin cuisine as meal inspirations to be prepared by the school’s kitchen staff for school lunches. The purpose of this is to use USDA Foods in Schools as highlights to encourage students to eat the delicious food the program has to offer. 

Though I stayed very occupied with different projects, I still had the ability to participate in team meetings. I learned about product changes in the FDPIR program, website updates, partnerships with organizations to train FDPIR educators, consolidation of categories, and additions to USDA Foods in Schools program. I also sampled foods and learned about quarterly nutrition meetings that include all regions in the nation, among other things. The meetings I attended allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of the programs and the roles each person held.

All in all, I had a great experience interning at the USDA. I improved my time management skills, worked in an environment I had never worked in before, learned a tremendous amount regarding the resources provided to schools, Native Americans and older adults, and developed great appreciation for the huge responsibility dietitians hold in these programs. Out of the few rotations I’ve completed, this one, by far, has taught me the most. I’ve learned to shift my mindset from team work to individual work. I’ve also learned immensely about the programs, and the importance of a dietitian in decision making processes. I am grateful for the time I’ve had here and am excited to bring these skills with me to all my future rotations.

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