Intern Spotlight: Laura Nelson, Legal Policy

Pear in Mind: A Blog in the Public Interest

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How do you know when you’ve landed your dream summer internship? When my research assignments took me to my own pantry – to read nutrition facts, look at allergen disclosures, and check for warning labels – I knew I had landed mine.

I’ve always been intrigued by food: where it comes from, why we consume it the way we do, and how the food system as a whole impacts our individual and community health. With so much emphasis on personal choice, I was overwhelmed by how much of that “choice” is already made for us. The way food is produced, regulated, labeled, sold, marketed, etc. makes so many of those decisions for us and harms our health in the process.

A combination of my personal interests, academic background, and professional experiences led me to law school in 2019. I am pursuing a dual JD/MPH at Boston University with a focus on health law and policy. I joined the program with a clear intention: I didn’t want to graduate as a lawyer with public health training on the side, or vice versa. I wanted to fuse the two disciplines and learn to understand, and eventually solve, public health problems from a legal perspective.

I got my first taste of this last summer when I worked on a Medical-Legal Partnership for Immigrants, where I learned that the legal landscape is an essential piece of any public health puzzle. At the risk of oversimplifying it, a set of laws determines an individual’s immigration status, which dictates the level of Medicaid they are eligible for, which then impacts the care they can afford and ultimately, the care they receive.

My internship at CSPI gave me the opportunity to explore the connections between law and public health in another context and return to one of my strongest public health passions: food policy.

Over the course of this summer, I worked with CSPI’s legal policy team on a variety of projects. My personal highlight was working on CSPI’s warning label campaign: an extension of CSPI’s ongoing commitment to make nutrition information available to consumers and hold food manufacturers accountable for the health impact of their products. Specifically, I worked on state and local legislation to require sodium and sugar warning icons on chain restaurant menus. I did some classic lawyering, learning how to draft the bills and think through anticipated legal challenges. But I also read CSPI research reports on how sodium and sugar show up in the food environment and impact our health. I participated in internal strategy conversations about how to spread awareness and support for the campaign. I saw how CSPI partners with different stakeholders who share similar public health goals. During my work on the campaign, I was rarely in a room of only lawyers. As a result, I learned how to be an effective member of a multi-disciplinary advocacy team. 

If law school is all about teaching me how to think like a public health lawyer, then my internship was about teaching me how to be one, and more. A CSPI lawyer doesn’t just practice the law. They advocate passionately and effectively for a healthier, more equitable food system. They partner with community advocates, nutrition scientists, and policy leaders to create meaningful change. And their “rules of evidence” are concerned with sound science, not just admissibility in court. I’m excited to take these principles with me as I look towards a future career in consumer advocacy for public health – and for the public interest. 

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