UTK Trainee Spotlight: Candace Sapp

Hi everyone, my name is Candace Sapp and I am the newest MCH Nutrition Leadership Trainee for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I am so excited to be a part of a team and network that are passionate about advocating for optimal health and quality of life for women, children, and families.

I am a first year doctoral student in the Nutrition Sciences department with a concentration in Community Nutrition. In addition to being a MCH trainee, I serve as a graduate assistant for the College of Education, Health & Human Sciences Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion where I work with the DEI Director to promote social justice for all members of the college community and specifically strive to increase recruitment and retention of students from historically underrepresented groups. My research interests lie at the intersection of implementation science and health disparities. I am interested in understanding the process and socio-ecological barriers to implementation and behavior change for currently existing childhood obesity interventions in minoritized populations. I am also interested in identifying factors associated with successful interventions. I hope that the best practices identified will lead to future innovation in program design and practice.

I received my Bachelor’s of Science in Food Science from Clemson University and my Master’s of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetic Internship from the University of Memphis. I have worked as a Registered Dietitian for over three years in community, school, and clinical settings. I look forward to gaining deeper leadership, theoretical, and research skills to combine with my practical experience and become an independent applied researcher.

I am eager to collaborate with fellow trainees and program leaders on different projects related to maternal and child health. Watching the planning process and execution of the Promoting Healthy Weight Colloquium 3.0 was a great learning experience. Listening and interacting with different speakers from various specialties share their passion about breastfeeding was invigorating and reminded me of the power of collaboration. I look forward to the next colloquium in the spring and other opportunities to champion health concerns especially for diverse communities. I appreciate the MCH Nutrition Leadership Trainee program because it seeks to not only develop knowledgeable practitioners and researchers but brave and compassionate leaders. I feel confident that I and other trainees will leave this program prepared to support and lead initiatives to dismantle health disparities related to nutrition.

In the spirit of learning and advocacy, I also look forward to spotlighting Indigenous practitioners and researchers who are doing important work in the fields of public health and nutrition as November is National Native American and Indigenous People Heritage Month. Tune in to the UT MCH Twitter page @UTmchnutrition to learn about the work being done by Indigenous people and how we all can support.

Candace Sapp, MS, RDN, LDN

Virtual Learning in the Face of Covid-19

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m living in a 1980’s sci-fi movie. The majority of my social interactions take place virtually and when I leave my home people are aloof and hidden behind face masks. Times are certainly uncertain. While some are thriving under the new conditions, others are just trying to keep up. I, for one, have found it difficult to give my full attention to course work while also parenting a three-year-old.

Though it is not the norm, my situation is not unique. Many faculty members and students are caring for children while simultaneously tending to course work and professional responsibilities. As maternal and child health professionals, I think it is critical to recognize what is being asked of families right now. Many parents are working 40-hour jobs from home while also caring for their children full time. If children are school age, parents are also expected to facilitate their children’s education. Parents working in essential service jobs outside of the home are tasked with finding safe and reliable childcare, while childcare centers and schools are closed. This is an especially trying time for many populations, especially working families with young children. While continuing on our academic journeys, it is important to keep these scenarios in mind.

Although it has taken time and patience for faculty and students to find their groove while learning, working teaching and maybe even parenting from home, most of us are growing accustomed to the virtual setting. It has been truly inspiring to see the many ways universities are working to ensure we are successful in these uncertain times. Some students report struggling with motivation and productivity, while others find relief from social stressors and more time to focus on studies. Many students are finding solace in focusing their energy on helping those in need, by sewing masks or volunteering to distribute food with various programs across the country. Others have worked quickly to begin research, with hopes of understanding the virus and its impact on the public. University of Tennessee professor, Dr. Sarah Colby, has collected more than 8,000 responses to a survey on nutrition and health behaviors during the pandemic. Further, she has collaborated with others to build a team to reach out to respondents in need.

Similar to coursework, many conferences and seminars have also moved to virtual platforms. Though these changes may have some limitations, it seems that these learning opportunities are more accessible than ever. The University of Tennessee MCH Nutrition trainees, as well as current and former MCH trainees from across the country, recently took part in the Making Lifelong Connections Conference from the comforts of home. The virtual conference focused on improving professional use of social media and virtual platforms. The conference increased participation and interaction by inviting attendees to share pictures illustrating their own social distancing experiences.

Whether you’re thriving or struggling to get through the day, we’re all in this together. If you’re feeling confident, reach out to friends and collogues that might not be. If you’re thriving, take note of the changes that have contributed to your success and advocate for those options to remain when social distancing recommendations ease. If you’re having a hard time, know there are recourses to support you. Please, don’t be afraid to talk about the challenges you’re experiencing. It’s likely that you’re not the only one struggling and the more awareness that can be raised around the hardships, the more can be don’t to reduce them in the future.

By: Emily Wojtowicz, MS, RD, CSP, LD, IBCLC




UTK Former Trainee Spotlight: Alexandra Alford

Alex Alford

Alexandra Alford is a registered and licensed dietitian in Atlanta, GA. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Human Ecology with a concentration in Dietetics at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) in Princess Anne, MD. Alexandra then attended the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville, TN to earn her Master of Science in Public Health Nutrition and her Master of Public Health in Community Health Education. In addition, she completed her dietetic internship at UT. While at UT, Alexandra was also a Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Nutrition Leadership Trainee, where she developed several leadership and planning skills that have helped her career blossom.

After graduating from UT, Alexandra worked at the UT Extension office in Wilson County, TN. While at UT Extension, Alexandra focused on the Farmers’ Market Fresh program in Wilson County, TN. This program was delivered at farmers’ markets that accepted payment from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and it was intended to help those with limited resources eat more local fruits and vegetables through education and access. Alexandra marketed the program to residents in the county, and led the implementation at a local farmers’ market in Lebanon, TN.

After her position with UT Extension, she worked full time for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Washington, DC. During Alexandra’s time with the USDA, she primarily supported the leadership of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). EFNEP is a national nutrition education program in the United States that targets low-income populations aiming to reduce nutrition insecurity of low-income families and youth. Alexandra worked with stakeholders across the nation and its territories to help improve the lives of those in the MCH population from a national perspective. There, she helped create and update policies that impacted the growth and reach of EFNEP. Alexandra also played an important role in reviewing and approving the planning and progress of EFNEP, ensuring each individual program was following federal guidelines and policies.

She then moved to Atlanta to work for Open Hand Atlanta, which is a non-profit organization that aims to cook, deliver, teach, and care. Alexandra currently provides nutrition education and counseling to a wide variety of individuals. At Open Hand, she provides monthly nutrition education in group settings and medical nutrition therapy to those living with HIV/AIDS and other health conditions.  She continues to help those with limited resources by linking her clients in need to the medically tailored meals that are created and delivered by Open Hand.

Since graduating and completing her time as an MCH Nutrition Leadership Trainee, Alexandra has remained working with the MCH population, helping those that need it most. She plans to continue these efforts throughout her career, forever thankful for the training and leadership provided by UMES, UT, and especially, the UT MCH Nutrition Leadership, Education, and Training Program.

UTK Trainee Spotlight: Emily Wojtowicz

Emily is a 1st year student and trainee at the University of Tennessee, pursuing a PhD in Community Nutrition. 

Emily WojtowiczEmily received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Arizona. Then, she went on to complete a combined dietetic internship and Master of Science program at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, Ohio. Emily’s Master’s degree is in Community Nutrition with an emphasis on child and maternal health. After completing her dietetic internship, she worked with the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program as a high-risk dietitian, lactation consultant, and Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program (BFPC) coordinator. Her research interests include barriers to breastfeeding, infant feeding, and human lactation.

I’ve been interested in nutrition for as long as I can remember. During my under graduate years, it quickly became apparent that community nutrition, specifically related to the maternal and child population, was my passion. I worked as a nutritionist with the WIC program immediately following my undergraduate studies. Although I had already learned about breastfeeding in school, I didn’t fully grasp the importance until working for WIC. I was so excited to learn more about breastfeeding and human lactation that I completed breastfeeding counselor training during spring break from Case Western. Only days after graduating from CWRU, I started working as a WIC clinic supervisor and dietitian in Oregon, where the majority of my time was spent providing direct nutrition counseling for high risk women, infants and children. A year later I moved to Arizona to continue working with WIC as a high-risk dietitian. During that time I also interned with the lactation department at the University of Arizona Medical Center, spending approximately 500 hours learning one on one from experienced IBCLCs (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) while proving direct lactation care. In 2015 I became certified as an IBCLC my self.

Through all of this time working directly with the MCH population, it has become clear that breastfeeding parents are in need of more support and better care in order to be successful. Not only am I passionate about conducting research to determine and reduce barriers to breastfeeding. I am also determined to help improve policy pertaining to lactation training requirements for many health professions. I am confident that the MCH traineeship will help me to achieve these goals.

Promoting Healthy Weight Colloquium 3.0: A Socio-Ecological Perspective – Healthful Food Access

Julianne Julianne is a first year Master’s student at University of Tennessee, Knoxville pursuing a degree in Public Health Nutrition. She hopes to work with medically underserved children and sustainable food systems. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from University of Dayton in Dietetics, Food and Nutrition. 

On Friday, September 27th, the University of Tennessee’s MCH Nutrition Leadership team along with the Department of Nutrition hosted the Promoting Healthy Weight Colloquium 3.0 (PHW3.0): A Socio-Ecological Perspective – Healthful Food Access. This was my first time being involved in the planning of this event and participating in the colloquium. As I reflect on this series, I am optimistic about the future because I witnessed the impassioned leadership the presenters brought to the colloquium. Each speaker connected the programs or organizations they work for to the Socio-Ecological Model (SEM) and explained how their program or organization uniquely addressed barriers individuals and communities have to obtaining healthful access to foods.

One of the themes that sparked my own passions and interest was food equity and conversation regarding the nutritional value foods being served to the most vulnerable populations in society, especially single mothers and their children. Listening to the presenters speak about how their organizations or programs have made an impact reminded me how vital it is for collaboration across the SEM and between different professions for a common goal: equitable and healthful food access for the most vulnerable. My interests in working towards food equity and justice for the most vulnerable were strengthened by seeing all of the positive leverage of programs and organizations like EFNEP, SNAP-ED, Shop Smart Tennessee, Fresh Pantry through Second Harvest, and Partnership for Healthier America. PHW3.0 has challenged me to continue thinking about my time as a new graduate student to keep evaluating and improving positive initiatives addressing barriers to healthful food access for vulnerable populations.

PHW Fall
Program Presentation Panelists at the Promoting Healthy Weight Colloquium on September 27, 2019.  Panelists represented the following programs: University of Tennessee Extension Program, Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee’s Fresh Pantry Mobile Program, and the Shop Smart Tennessee research intervention program.

UTK Trainee Spotlight: Sa’Nealdra Wiggins

Headshot19Sa’Nealdra is a 4th year doctoral student at the University of Tennessee pursuing a degree in Nutritional Sciences in hopes of impacting women and girls of color as it pertains to dietary quality. She currently holds a degree in Health Education-Public Health from Middle Tennessee State University.




This summer I completed a 7-week internship with a Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) as a part of our nutrition program requirements. PHA is a non-profit organization that was created by Michelle Obama to partner with the private sector while improving our nation’s food systems, in a larger effort to improve childhood obesity rates. As I reflect on this experience, I am reminded of how important it is as a future professional to embrace opportunities and to explore unfamiliar territory. I have always been comfortable embracing those familiar opportunities that are similar to what I aspire to do as a professional; however, I learned this summer that sometimes it is more beneficial to get your feet wet in other fields.

I interned with PHA’s Fruit and Vegetable campaign (initiative) which seeks to encourage the world to consume more fruits and vegetables: fresh, frozen, dried, or canned. Although I had no prior experience with non-profit organizations, I found this to be a fulfilling experience. It was different than the usual public health and community research I have been involved in. I was instead doing things such as assisting companies in improving the nutritional quality of their food products. I developed many new skills that I will continue to use throughout my career; however, my main takeaway was the reminder to always immerse myself in opportunities that are outside of my normal scope. This internship was definitely a highlight in my graduate career and I would encourage others to seek opportunities that are outside of their field!